My research revolves around 2 big areas: theoretical issues in syntax and methodological and ethical issues.  How those two interact with learning and teaching is best articulated in Benedicto and Mayangna Yulbarangyang Balna (2007).

This philosophy of doing highly theoretical work at the same time that we engage the language community is on the basis of the activities carried out at the Indigenous and Endangered Languages Lab by myself, graduate and undergraduate students and visitors alike.


Theoretical Work in Syntax

The ultimate goal of formal approaches to linguistic work, along the lines of Chomsky’s Minimalism, is to model the innate capacity for Language that humans manifest, the core of highly abstract properties that all human languages share that we have called Universal Grammar (UG).

The way to get to this core of abstract properties is through actual concrete languages, all of which present an enormous range of diversity in the phenomena they manifest. It is precisely this tension between the shared core of abstract properties and the wide variety of specific phenomena that interests me and informs my research: when we can find a phenomenon across languages that are not related and are not in contact, that in its surface may or may not look alike but manifests the same highly abstract structural properties, we have a very good candidate for UG.  This is the approach that I am following in my work, and that of my students, on, e.g., Serial Verb Constructions or Verbal Classifiers.


Serial Verb Constructions … or the building blocks for syntactic structure.

Serial Verb Constructions (SVC) is a label used to cover a heterogeneous set of phenomena that share certain surface properties.

I am interested in them in as much as they can represent a syntactic mechanism to add ‘arguments’ in a broad sense. As such, I have worked on their use to build complex movement predicates in a variety of Sign Languages, in Mayangna, in SwaTawWe (Cheng, 2012) and in certain varieties of Spanish (Vela, 2013 for Ecuadorian Spanish). The complexity of such predicates involves complex paths, manner of movement, telicity and the addition of an agent (as a transitivizing device).

Furthermore, though it is generally stated that SVCs manifest no specific morphology, we have been observing the presence of certain Switch Reference Systems in languages as separate as Mayangna and Hong Kong Sign Language.

The hypothesis that I have been considering is that SVCs are formed by successive merging of complex functional heads, whose composition I am currently analizing.

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Verbal (and other) Classifiers … or the featural composition of complex functional heads.

The nature of functional heads (which features conform them, how do languages actually ‘choose’ certain composition of features over others, etc…) has been on the basis of my work since the beginning. Since their precise composition (that is, which features are bundled in a matrix that will constitute a complex head) determines, in a considerable way, which operations will take place in a given grammar, they may be at the core of grammar variation (an idea that goes back to Borer, 1982) and as such, instrumental in addressing the puzzle between the shared highly abstract properties of Language and the high level of linguistic diversity, that we mentioned at the beginning.

I have addressed these issues in dealing with Verbal Classifiers in Sign Languages and in Mayangna, and in dealing with the morphosyntactic devices associated with unusual modality structures in Mayangna.

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Early Sequential Acquisition of Multiple Grammars.

At the heart of the complexity of functional heads is the question of how languages ‘choose’ their particular composition. In that sense, it’s becoming more and  more interesting to see the behavior of such heads early on, that is in the process of their acquisition by children and, in particular, the sequential acquisition of grammars. Sequential acquisition is interesting because it allows us to observe if children are using the grammar of their already existing L1 (that is, if they are ‘transfering’ the composition of their L1 complex functional heads), or if they are using UG to create those functional heads anew.

Based on initial work by Park (2011) on Korean-English sequential bilingual acquisition of T-to-C, we are currently working on Spanish-English and Mandarin-English bilingual children’s sequential acquisition of English functional heads T and C.

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Methodological and Ethical Work

As a scientist interested in social engagement in academia and on issues of social justice, especially when dealing with endangered and minority languages, an issue that arises is how we, the scientists, relate to the language community and the speakers of the languages that inform our theoretical work.

As such I have devoted attention to collaboratively developing ways of interacting with the community in an equal-to-equal way and to address issues of power and fairness in that interaction.
The section on Participatory (Action) Research under Publications is a sample of the thought process in that area, mostly in collaboration with the Mayangna Yulbarangyang Balna, the team of indigenous Mayangna linguists I have been collaborating with since the mid 1990s.


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