Learning Verb Syntax via Listening: New Evidence From 22-Month-Olds

Katherine Messenger, Sylvia Yuan, Cynthia Fisher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Children recruit verb syntax to guide verb interpretation. We asked whether 22-month-olds spontaneously encode information about a particular novel verb’s syntactic properties through listening to sentences, retain this information in long-term memory over a filled delay, and retrieve it to guide interpretation upon hearing the same novel verb again. Children watched dialogues in which interlocutors discussed unseen events using a novel verb in transitive (e.g., “Anna blicked the baby”) or intransitive sentences (“Anna blicked”). Children later heard the verb in isolation (“Find blicking!”) while viewing a two-participant causal action and a one-participant action event. Children who had heard transitive dialogues looked longer at the two-participant event than did those who heard intransitive dialogues. This effect disappeared if children heard a different novel verb at test (“Find kradding!”). These findings implicate a role for distributional learning in early verb learning: syntactic-combinatorial information about otherwise unknown words may pervade the toddler’s lexicon, guiding later word interpretation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)356-368
Number of pages13
JournalLanguage Learning and Development
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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