Argument structure can be inferred from discourse.

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Theeraporn Ratitamkul, University of Illinois and Adele E. Goldberg, Princeton University
Introduction
How do young children learn verb meanings?
• Scene observation is not sufficient (e.g. Fisher et
al. 1994; Gillette et al. 1999).
• Syntactic evidence helps (e.g. Landau &
Gleitman 1985; Naigles 1990; Fisher 1996,
2002).
What happens when syntax does not reflect
semantics?
• Even in English, an important cue, the number
of arguments, is not always reliable.
I pushed, but it did not move.
• In Thai, arguments are readily omitted when
they are recoverable from discourse.
Khaw tham dii khruu cUng chom
He do well teacher then praise
‘He did well, so the teacher praised (him).’
Method
Study 1: Thai-speaking children
28 4-year-olds (3.9 to 4.9, M = 4.3)
28 5-year-olds (4.9 to 5.7, M = 5.1)
Study 2: English-speaking children
16 5-year-olds (4.9 to 5.7, M = 5.2)
Practice trials
• Enactment of 7 sentences (known and
nonsense verbs)
Test trials
• 4 short stories, each of which contained a
nonce verb presented in intransitive frame
(N+V+ADV)
• Stories varied in whether the sentence
immediately following the target sentence
shared the same or different subject as the
target sentence.
• Subject of the target sentence had also
appeared as subjects in previous sentences
half of the time.
Discussion and Conclusions
Same subject
Different subject
A kitten and a puppy were
playing tag. The kitten was
running behind the puppy.
The kitten was running very
fast. The puppy blicked
hard. Then, the puppy fell
down.
Then, they both laughed and
laughed.
A kitten and a puppy were
playing tag. The kitten was
running behind the puppy.
The kitten was running very
fast. The puppy blicked
hard. Then, the kitten fell
down.
Then, they both laughed and
laughed.
• Discourse affects verb-argument structure interpretation. Thai- and English-speaking children both acted out
intransitively expressed events as semantically transitive more often when the subject of the novel verb was
different from the subject in the immediately following sentence.
English (n=16)
Thai (n=56)
*
0.70
0.60
0.50
0.40
4-yr-olds
0.30
5-yr-olds
0.20
0.10
0.00
different
same
prop. 2-participant action
• 2-year-olds use discourse/pragmatic knowledge
to determine when arguments can be
unexpressed (Allen 2000).
• 3-year-olds rely on cues from discourse to
interpret the referent of an ambiguous pronoun
(Song & Fisher 2005).
• 6-year olds pay attention to the listener’s
knowledge of situational context when using
adjectives (Nadig &Sedivy 2002).
• Do children also use discourse context to figure
out verb meanings?
• An apparently intransitive verb might be taken
as transitive if there is a second element
mentioned in the local context.
Results
prop. 2-partic ipant action
Discourse context?
“The puppy blicked hard. Then, the kitten fell
down.”
blick (agent, patient) – interpreted with omitted
patient
• Transitive interpretation was more likely
when the event described in the subsequent
sentence could be causally related to the
sentence with a novel verb.
• This interpretation increases discourse
coherence.
Conclusions
How is verb meaning acquired when an object • Task: to act out target sentence after the story
was heard, using toy animals
argument is omitted?
The puppy blicked quickly. Then, the kitten fell
down.
Intransitive act with 1 participant?
Or transitive with missing object?
Why 2-participant acts?
0.70
0.60
0.50
0.40
0.30
0.20
0.10
0.00
• Young children are able to draw on discourse
context to determine the argument structure
of an unfamiliar verb.
• The influence of discourse context is not
restricted to children acquiring languages in
which argument omission is common (e.g.,
Thai, but is true of English-speaking children
as well).
• Discourse context functions as additional cue
to verb interpretation.
References
*
different
5-yr-olds
same
* no effect of age
• Syntax also matters. 46% of Thai children and 38% of English children only produced intransitive
enactment.
Boston University Conference on Language Development, Boston, MA, November 3-5, 2006
Allen, S. (2000). A discourse pragmatic explanation for argument representation in child
Inuktitut. Linguistics, 38, 483-521.
Fisher, C. (1996). Structural limits on verb mapping: the role of analogy in children’s
interpretation of sentences. Cognitive Psychology, 31, 41-81.
Fisher, C. (2002). Structural limits on verb mapping: the role of abstract structure in 2.5-yearolds’ interpretations of novel verbs. Developmental Science, 5, 55-64.
Fisher, C., Hall, D.G., Rakowitz, S., & Gleitman, L. (1994). When it is better to receive that to
give: syntactic and conceptual constraints on vocabulary growth. Lingua, 92, 333-375.
Gillette, J., Gleitman, H., Gleitman, L.R., & Lederer, A. (1999). Human simulations of
vocabulary learning. Cognition, 73, 135-176.
Landau, B., & Gleitman, L.R. (1985). Language and experience: evidence from the blind child.
Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press.
Nadig, A., & Sedivy, J. (2002). Evidence of perspective-taking constraints in children on-line
reference resolution. Psychological Science, 13, 329-336.
Naigles, L. (1990). Children use syntax to learn verb meanings. Journal of Child Language, 17,
357-374.
Song, H, & Fisher C. (2005) Who’s “she”? Discourse prominence influences preschoolers’
comprehension of pronouns. Cognition, 52, 29-57.
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