Linguistics, Research, Faculty

Faculty Profile: Chung-hye Han, Department of Linguistics

April 07, 2014

Dr. Chung-hye Han, Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics, received a Dean’s Medal in 2013 for excellence in academic research, teaching, and service. Her research is on the interface between syntax and semantics, and on computational applications of linguistic theories.

Dr. Han, what drew you to work on syntax?

Syntax is a study of sentence structure. I found it interesting that languages show a complex hidden structure in sentences if you know how to look for them. It takes a lot of detective work to uncover this structure; clues can be found by systematically comparing various types of sentences both within a language and across different languages.

It turns out that even a peek at the underlying hidden structure of each language shows an astonishing similarity across languages and their differences suddenly become systematic. These clues hint at a kind of periodic table of syntactic rules and constraints that can be combined to explain the syntax of all the 7000 or more languages spoken around the world.

This detective work also seems to point towards an explanation of how infants can master a language so effortlessly. It seems to be because their brains impose this underlying system to each particular language they are exposed to. I was attracted to this endeavour because it meant I could truly work on a science of language, an exciting prospect.

Can you tell us more about your work on how children acquire verbs in head‑final languages like Korean and Japanese, compared to those who speak a head-initial language like English?

In a head-initial language, the verb of the sentence occurs before the object. For example, English and French are head-initial languages. In ‘John ate an apple’, the verb ‘ate’ occurs before the object ‘an apple’. Korean and Japanese, in contrast, are head-final languages. The verb of the sentence occurs at the end of the sentence, as in ‘John an apple ate’.

Now, even though both English and French are head-initial languages, the position of the verb in the sentence structure is different between the two languages. Where the adverb is placed with respect to the verb can be a diagnostic test for the structural position of the verb. In Korean and Japanese, no such diagnostic test based on word order is available because the verb must always occur at the end of the sentence, so we have no evidence from word order whether the verb is sitting high or low in the structure.

This is a problem for both linguists doing syntactic analysis, and for children learning the language. Korean and Japanese children have little or no indication of whether the verb is placed high or low in the sentence structure, so either the children must all acquire one structure as a default strategy, or they choose the higher or lower option at random.

But how can we tell whether the verb is placed high or low in head-final languages? Since there can be no test based on word order, I devised a test that relies on the meaning of sentences containing negation and a quantifier, such as ‘The cookie monster did not eat every cookie’. In Korean, negation is an inflection on the verb and so it is placed wherever the verb is in the sentence structure. As such, I concluded that a certain interpretation is available with negative sentences with quantifiers if the verb is placed high in the structure, but absent if the verb is placed low.

My research indicates that Korean children choose the higher or lower option at random, with approximately half choosing the high structure and half choosing the low structure. I also found that the choice made by the children does not correlate with their parents. These are quite exciting results providing further evidence that children actively formulate an internal grammar.

What language do you speak at home, does this affect your daughter’s first language acquisition, and do you observe any interesting patterns at home that help you in your research?

I have a 5 year-old daughter. Until she started kindergarten, I only spoke Korean to her, which is a head-final language, hoping she would become bilingual. When she was younger, she would often produce sentences with English words, but in Korean word order. But now, English is clearly the dominant language for her, and it is difficult for me to insist on Korean with her. But I try.

I do notice that she makes many overgeneralization errors in English: for example, saying ‘badder’ instead of ‘worse’, ‘gooder’ instead of ‘better’, ‘brang’ instead of ‘bring’, and so on. The ‘brang’ example is really interesting because this is an overgeneralization of exceptional past tense formation in English, from ‘sing’ and ‘sang’. Such errors show that children acquire language by formulating linguistic rules, instead of simply imitating the way their parents speak. I often talk about such errors when I teach to emphasize this aspect of language acquisition.

What are you working on now?

With the help of the members of the Experimental Syntax Lab, I am currently in the process of designing an experiment on certain types of relative clauses in English. This is part of my larger research project on the grammar and processing of anaphoric pronouns like ‘him’ or ‘her’.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I hope to continue to learn new experimental techniques and use them in my research with the goal of informing syntactic theory. I admire linguists who produce research that have strong empirical foundation with interesting theoretical implications. I aspire to be one of them.