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Investigating the role of adverbs in verb learning

Dr. Kristen Syrett

Thursday, October 18, 2012, 12:00pm - 07:00pm

Rutgers University, Department of Linguistics and Center for Cognitive Science

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Acquiring the meaning of verbs is notoriously challenging for the young word learner.  We know, however, that toddlers receive some support from the linguistic environment in which a verb appears – namely the syntactic frame containing the verb’s arguments.  The number and position of the noun phrases occupying these slots reveal important information about the syntactic and semantic representation of a verb. But there are limits to how informative this frame can be: when pronouns replace contentful noun phrases, toddlers who would otherwise be able to identify the meaning of the verb hover at chance.  In this work, we take this impoverished environment as a testing bed to ask what additional lexical expressions could provide information about the event, thereby allowing toddlers to acquire a verb’s meaning. 

The target for this investigation is adverbial modifiers.  Though not necessarily produced early in language development, these lexical items exhibit rather predictable surface-level features and can carry useful information about how the participants are engaged in the event, and how the event transpires.  Moreover, previous work (Syrett & Lidz, 2010) has shown that toddlers can recruit adverbial information when learning about adjectives.  In a word-learning experiment, we show that 27-month-olds are likely to map a novel verb onto its intended meaning when it is modified by the manner-of-motion adverb slowly, but not when it is modified by a vague manner-of-motion adverb (nicely) or a highly-frequent temporal indexical (right now). These findings provide the first evidence that adverbs that highlight certain aspects of the event semantics facilitate verb learning in 2-year-olds, and therefore not only further illuminate the potential power of this class of lexical items in word learning, but also refine our understanding of the nature of the informational requirements of verb learning.

(This is joint work with Sudha Arunachalam (Boston University) and Sandra Waxman (Northwestern University).)

Dr. Kristen Syrett