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Syntactic bootstrapping

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Abstract Children use syntax to guide verb learning in a process known as syntactic bootstrapping. Recent work explores how syntactic bootstrapping works—how it begins, and how it interacts with progress in syntax acquisition. We review evidence for three claims about the mechanisms and representations underlying syntactic bootstrapping: (1) Learners are biased to represent linguistic knowledge in a usefully abstract mental vocabulary, permitting rapid generalization of newly acquired syntactic knowledge to new verbs. (2) Toddlers collect information about each verb's combinatorial behavior in sentences based on listening experience, before they know anything about the verb's semantic content. (3) Syntactic bootstrapping begins with an unlearned bias to map nouns in sentences one‐to‐one onto the participant roles in events. These lines of evidence point toward a picture of early verb learning in which shallow structural analyses of sentences are intrinsically meaningful to learners, and in which information about verbs' combinatorial behavior pervades the lexicon from very early in development. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. This article is categorized under: Linguistics > Language in Mind and Brain

Sample stimuli from Gertner, Fisher, and Eisengart.20 Children aged 21 months viewed two caused motion events while hearing a novel transitive verb. The children looked reliably longer at the event in which the agent–patient role assignments were appropriate for the word order of the sentence they heard.

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Sample stimulus items, Fisher et al.28 Children saw training trials in which a hand pointed to a duck on a box, while the new word was presented as a noun or as a preposition. At test, children saw two test events: in each, the hand pointed to another duck on the box, while children heard the test sentence for their condition. The location‐match screen showed a different object (a non‐duck) on the box, and the object‐match screen showed another duck beside the box.

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Video stimuli from Scott and Fisher.13 Two‐year‐olds viewed dialogues in which a new verb appeared in sentences with the distributional characteristics of causal alternation or unspecified object verbs. This dialogue experience affected their interpretation of the same verb when they later encountered it in a transitive sentence: children who had heard causal dialogues now looked longer at the causal event than did children who had heard the unspecified‐object dialogues.

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Sample stimuli from Yuan and Fisher.26 Two‐year‐olds watched dialogues in which they heard a novel verb in transitive or intransitive sentences. Next, they viewed test event while hearing the verb in isolation. Children who had heard transitive dialogues looked longer at the two‐participant event than did those who had heard intransitive dialogues. This dialogue effect disappeared in a control condition in which children heard only neutral audio during the test phase.

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