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Can complement frames help children learn the meaning of abstract verbs?

Kristen Nicole Asplin, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Theories of language learning postulate a relatively simple, innate link between verb meaning and sentence structure. Syntactic bootstrapping predicts the use of known structure to help discover a novel word's meaning. Sentences containing tensed complements were postulated to be especially useful, since their relationship with belief, communication and perception meanings is strong. The current goal was to test this relationship in a verb learning paradigm. In Experiment 1, three- to five-year-old children received a battery of tasks to assess their command of different complement structures and their ability to use them to fast map novel verbs from limited exposure in story contexts. In the fast mapping task, ambiguous story contexts introduced a novel verb with either an tensed or an infinitival complement, e.g. (1) Who daxed that the raccoon ate the corn? (2) Who daxed the raccoon to eat the corn? Five-year-old children succeeded at using the infinitival complement to narrow the meaning of the novel verb. In the case of the tensed complement, Five-year-old children do poorly, although this construction typically comes in a year earlier. For these children, complement structure does not directly predict verb meaning. In fact, the contrast between belief and desire complements is not carried by the structure alone. Unlike English, German desire verbs can also take tensed complements. A combination of understanding of sequence of tense in the complement verb, and the relationship between specific mental verbs and their complement verbs has not yet been acquired by five year old children. In Experiment 2, only one story was used in the Fast Mapping task, unlike the three in Experiment l, to see if the number of presentations affected children's learning of novel verbs in the tensed complement condition. However, the results were inconclusive. The pattern of results from all tasks suggests that the syntactic structure of complementation is not a straightforward predictor of verb meaning. Children do indeed use syntactic information from sentential complements when learning new, abstract verbs. However, the subtleties of the complements must be learned, as well as the relationship between these structures and the verbs that appear in them.

Subject Area

Developmental psychology|Linguistics

Recommended Citation

Asplin, Kristen Nicole, "Can complement frames help children learn the meaning of abstract verbs?" (2002). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3068537.