Field of Science

Boston University Conference on Language Development: Day 2

This year marks my 7th straight BUCLD, the major yearly language acquisition conference. See previous posts for my notes on Day 1 and Day 3.

Verbing nouns

Many if not all English nouns can be turned into verbs. The verb's meaning is related to the noun, but not always in the same way. Consider "John milked the cow" and "John watered the garden". In the first face, John extracts a liquid from the cow; in the second, he adds liquid to the garden.

Maybe this is just something we have to learn in each case, but people seem to have strong intuitions about new verbs. Let's say that there is a substance called "dax" that comes from the dax tree. If I were to dax a tree, am I taking dax out of the tree or adding dax to the tree? Most people think the first definition is right. Now let's say there is something called "blick" which is a seasoning that people often add to soup. If I blick some soup, most people think I'm adding blick to the soup, not taking blick out of the soup. (There are other types of noun-derived verbs as well, but they are a topic for another time.)

These examples suggest a hypothesis: if a noun refers to a substance that usually comes from a specific source, then the derived verb probably refers to the action of extracting that substance. If the noun refers to something that doesn't come from any particular source but is often added to things, then the derived verb refers to that process of adding the substance to something.

Mahesh Srinivasan of UCSD presented joint work with David Barner in which they tested this hypothesis. Probably the most informative of the experiments was one with made-up nouns, much like my "dax" and "blick" examples above. Interestingly, while children were pretty sure that "to blick" meant "put blick on something" (the experiment involved several such nouns, and the children had strong intuitions about all of them), they were much less sure what "to dax" (and similar verbs) meant. Other experiments also showed that young children have more difficulty understanding existing substance-extraction noun-derived verbs (to milk/dust/weed/etc.) than substance-adding noun-derived verbs (to water/paint/butter). And interestingly, English has many more of the latter type of verb than the former.

So, as usual, answer one question leads to another. While they found strong support for their hypothesis about why certain noun-derived verbs have the meanings they do, they also found that children find the one kind of verb easier to learn than the other, which demands an explanation. They explored a few hypotheses. One has to do with the "goal" bias described in previous work by Laura Lakusta and colleagues: generally, when infants watch a video in which an object goes from one location to another, they pay more attention to and remember better the location the object ended up at than the location it came from. Whatever the answer, learning biases -- particularly in young children -- are interesting because they provide clues as to the structure of the mind.

Verb biases in structure priming

One of the talks most-mentioned among the folks I talked to at BUCLD was one on structural priming by Michelle Peter (with Ryan Blything, Caroline Rowland, and Franklin Chang, all of the University of Liverpool). The idea behind structural priming is that using a particular syntactic structure once tends to lead to using it more again in the future (priming). The structure under consideration here was the so-called dative alternation:

(1) Mary gave a book to John.
(2) Mary gave John a book

Although the two sentences mean the same thing (maybe -- that's a long post in itself), notice the difference in word order between (1) and (2). The former is called the "prepositional object" structure, and the second is called the "double object" structure. Some time ago, it was discovered that if people use a given verb (e.g., give) in the prepositional object form once, they are more likely to use that verb in the same form again next time they have to use that verb (and vice versa for the double object form). More recently, it was discovered that using one verb (e.g., give) in the prepositional object form made it more likely to use another verb (e.g., send) in that same form (and again vice versa for the double object form). This suggests that the syntactic form itself is represented in some way that is (at least partially) independent of the verb in question, which is consistent with theories involving relatively abstract grammar.

Or maybe not. This has been highly controversial over the last number of years, with groups of researchers (including the Rowland group) showing evidence of what they call a "lexical boost" -- priming is stronger from the same verb to the same verb, which they take as evidence that grammar is at least partly word-specific. Interestingly, they have now found that children do *not* show the same lexical boost (which, if I remember correctly, has been found by other researchers from the "abstract grammar" camp before, but not by those in the "lexically-specific grammar" camp).

This seems consistent with a theory of grammar on which children start out with relatively general grammatical structures, but as you get older you tend to memorize particularly frequent constructions -- thus, as far as processing goes, grammar becomes increasingly lexically-specific as you get older (though the abstract structures are still around in order to allow for productivity). This is the opposite of the speakers' favored theory, one which grammar becomes more abstract as you get older. They did find some aspects of their data that they thought reflected lexically-specific processing in children; it's complex so I won't discuss it here (I didn't have time to get it all down in my notes and don't want to make a mistake).

There was also a talk by Kyae-Sung Park (collaborator: Bonnie D. Schwartz, both of the University of Hawai'i) on the Korean version of the dative alternation, finding that the more common form is learned earlier by second-language learners of Korean. I was interested in finding out more about the structure of Korean, but I don't know the second-language acquisition research well enough to integrate their main findings into the larger literature.

Other studies

There were many other good talks. The ones I saw included a study by Wang & Mintz, arguing that previous studies that looked at the overlap in the contexts in which different determiners occur in child speech -- which had been used to suggest that young children don't have an abstract grammatical category "determiner" -- were confounded by the small size of the corpora used. If you use a similarly small corpus of adult speech, you'd come to the same conclusion. [The analyses were much cooler and more detailed than this quick overview can get across.]

Lakusta, L., Wagner, L., O'Hearn, K., and Landau, B. (2007). Conceptual Foundations of Spatial Language: Evidence for a Goal Bias in Infants Language Learning and Development, 3 (3), 179-197 DOI: 10.1080/15475440701360168

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