Rhetorical questions (RQs), such as ‘Who likes paying taxes?!’ signal the speaker’s attitude rather than requesting information. They can have the same syntactic surface structure as information-seeking questions (ISQs), from which they can be disambiguated by context, prosody, and syntactic cues (Biezma & Rawlins, 2017). Successful comprehension and production of RQs involves access to prosodic, lexical, and contextual cues, which differ across languages, as well as Theory of Mind. Therefore, they provide the opportunity to investigate how access to these cues changes over time as children develop their language and cognitive abilities and whether bilingual children and adults have different coding strategies in each of their languages and it relation to monolinguals.
Previous research suggests that monolingual children aged 4 may be able to at least partially comprehend and use irony and RQs (Recchia et al., 2010). However, phenomena that integrate information across different domains of language and cognition are known to be challenging for bilingual acquisition (Platzack, 2001; Sorace, 2011).
This project investigates for the first time systematically how German-Italian bilingual and monolingual children and adults acquire RQs. Our guiding research questions are:
A. Do children have access to the cues for RQs at all times of their linguistic development?
B. Since coding-strategies differ across languages, do bilingual speakers have different coding strategies in each of their languages and do they differ from monolingual speakers?
Using a combination of perception, comprehension, and production tasks, the first research question addresses whether bilinguals are able to perceive the difference between ISQs and RQs on the basis of prosodic cues and lexical cues (discourse particles), whether they can use these cues to comprehend RQs and whether they can use these cues in their own production. The second research questions addresses the acquisition of RQ in different dimensions of bilingualism; it compares the acquisition of RQs in bilingual’ majority language (German) to their minority/heritage language (Italian) and it makes inferences about the roles of age (and general cognitive abilities), age of onset, length and type of exposure and input, proficiency in the two languages in contact (German and Italian), acquisition of irony (in German and Italian), and Theory of Mind (in German and Italian). By comparing adult early vs. adult late learners of German, it addresses effects of age of onset and relative proficiency in German. Given the extremely limited research on the acquisition of RQs, the present programme will use the previous knowledge gained from the first phase of the Research Unit to investigate for the first time systematically how RQs develop in monolingual and bilingual children and adults.