A fundamental task in sentence comprehension involves assigning semantic roles to sentence constituents, determining who does what to whom. Verb knowledge plays a central role in this task. The verb determines what constituents can appear in the sentence, and what participant roles they will convey. In learning a new verb, a child must determine what relationship among participants the verb refers to, without the set of semantic instructions provided by the verb. The syntactic bootstrapping theory proposes that children use precursors of the adult's knowledge of syntax to understand sentences and therefore to learn verbs. This view is supported by evidence that children as young as 2 assign different meanings to verbs presented in different sentence structures. The proposed research asks what syntactic cues are helpful early in acquisition, before many of the complexities of syntax acquisition have been conquered. First, we argue that children treat the number of nouns in the sentence as a cue to its semantic predicate- argument structure. The number of nouns in the sentence is useful because it provides a probabilistic indicator of the verb's number of arguments. Second, early syntactic bootstrapping requires that children represent language experience in an abstract mental vocabulary that permits rapid generalization of syntactic learning to new verbs. Thus, we argue that language-specific grammatical learning, such as detecting the significance of word order in English, should transfer quickly to sentences containing new verbs, permitting progressively finer constraint on sentence interpretation and verb learning. This project explores how syntactic bootstrapping begins, and how it interacts with early progress in syntax acquisition. We take two complementary approaches: (1) Experiments with infants and toddlers will investigate the detection and use of the proposed simple structural cues to sentence interpretation and verb learning. (2) Computational experiments using a system for automatic semantic role labeling will test the main claims of our account using a substantial sample of natural child-directed speech. This combination of experimental and computational studies is intended to advance scientific knowledge about how children learn their native languages, and to guide the development of new, robust learning protocols that will be of use in automatic natural language processing. The proposed research will help us to understand how infants and toddlers learn the words and syntax of their native languages;such research will contribute to the detection and remediation of language delays, and to language pedagogy.

Agency
National Institute of Health (NIH)
Institute
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Type
Research Project (R01)
Project #
5R01HD054448-05
Application #
8042604
Study Section
Language and Communication Study Section (LCOM)
Program Officer
Freund, Lisa S
Project Start
2007-04-01
Project End
2014-01-31
Budget Start
2011-02-01
Budget End
2014-01-31
Support Year
5
Fiscal Year
2011
Total Cost
$291,831
Indirect Cost
Name
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Department
Psychology
Type
Schools of Arts and Sciences
DUNS #
041544081
City
Champaign
State
IL
Country
United States
Zip Code
61820
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Messenger, Katherine; Yuan, Sylvia; Fisher, Cynthia (2015) Learning verb syntax via listening: New evidence from 22-month-olds. Lang Learn Dev 11:356-368
Dautriche, Isabelle; Cristia, Alejandrina; Brusini, Perrine et al. (2014) Toddlers default to canonical surface-to-meaning mapping when learning verbs. Child Dev 85:1168-1180
Song, Hyun-Joo; Baillargeon, Renée; Fisher, Cynthia (2014) The development of infants' use of novel verbal information when reasoning about others' actions. PLoS One 9:e92387
Gertner, Yael; Fisher, Cynthia (2012) Predicted errors in children's early sentence comprehension. Cognition 124:85-94
Yuan, Sylvia; Fisher, Cynthia; Snedeker, Jesse (2012) Counting the nouns: simple structural cues to verb meaning. Child Dev 83:1382-99
Scott, Rose M; Fisher, Cynthia (2012) 2.5-year-olds use cross-situational consistency to learn verbs under referential uncertainty. Cognition 122:163-80
Scott, Rose M; Fisher, Cynthia (2009) 2-year-olds use distributional cues to interpret transitivity-alternating verbs. Lang Cogn Process 24:777-803
Yuan, Sylvia; Fisher, Cynthia (2009) ""Really? She blicked the baby?"": two-year-olds learn combinatorial facts about verbs by listening. Psychol Sci 20:619-26
Song, Hyun-Joo; Onishi, Kristine H; Baillargeon, Renee et al. (2008) Can an agent's false belief be corrected by an appropriate communication? Psychological reasoning in 18-month-old infants. Cognition 109:295-315