Developmental trajectory of grammatical gender: evidence from Arabic
There is a well-documented bias among children to disproportionately rely on morphophonological cues to determine noun gender classes (Culbertson et al., 2019; Gagliardi & Lidz , 2014; Karmiloff-Smith, 1979; Levy, 1983; Pérez-Pereira, 1991). However, it is still unclear when and how children overcome this bias and approximate an adult-like weighting of morphophonological, semantic and syntactic cues for grammatical gender classes. The current study set out to uncover this developmental trajectory by studying the acquisition of grammatical gender in Arabic. Arabic has a two-gender system, nouns being either masculine or feminine. There is a fairly strong morphophonological cue for gender: more than 99% of the non-human feminine nouns end in -a while only 1% of the non-human masculine nouns have that ending. Crucially, Arabic also has a highly reliable association between natural and grammatical gender in human nouns (e.g., walad (M) ‘boy’/ bint (F) ‘girl’, ʾab (M) ‘father’/ ʾumm (F) ‘mother’). The current study tried to find out when the association between natural gender and grammatical gender is acquired by language learners. This association in Arabic has no exceptions. L1 Arabic learners do not have to learn only this association but also that this association always takes precedence over the morphophonological association. Two elicited production experiments were conducted with 202 native Hasawi Arabic-speaking participants of five age groups: 2;6-3;11, 4;0-5;11, 6;0-10;11, 11;0-15;11, and adults. The first experiment investigated the interaction between morphophonological (ending), semantic (natural gender), and syntactic (agreement) cues using novel nouns. The second experiment investigated the effect of natural gender further by providing no syntactic cues. The results of this investigation revealed that the interaction between morphophonological information and semantic information follows a gradual developmental path. A number of factors contribute to the discovery of the cues to grammatical gender classes and using them in attributing gender to new nouns. Among the most important factors are, the degree of reliability of gender markers, the overt-coding of gender markers, the uniformity of those markers, and the consistency of semantic cues. Overall, this data from Arabic demonstrates that, despite early bias for morphophonological cues, sensitivity to semantic and syntactic cues exists as early as 2 to 3 years. The development of grammatical gender from that stage therefore involves adjustments in cue weighting rather than discovery of the cues. It is not until adolescence that Arabic learners reach adult-like weighting of semantic cues in assigning gender in the language.