Learning Words and Syntax: The Origins of Sentence Comprehension
Infant language-learners encounter unknown words combined by the rules of an unknown grammar, yet begin to understand sentences early in the second year of life. Accounts of how they do so must begin with the situation accompanying each utterance. The true linguistic novice, not yet knowing the words or grammar, must try to understand what we mean by observing the situation in which we say it. But aspects of sentence meanings challenge the assumption that learners can recover meaning from non-linguistic scenes alone. The syntactic-bootstrapping theory therefore proposes that children also use knowledge of syntax itself to interpret sentences. My work has asked how this could be: How could syntactic structure guide sentence interpretation–without assuming the child has already learned the grammar of the native language? My students and I have proposed an account of the origins of syntactic bootstrapping on which children begin with an unlearned bias toward one-to-one mapping between nouns in sentences and participant-roles in events. Given this bias, children treat the number of nouns in a sentence as a cue to its semantic predicate-argument structure. In this talk, I will summarize some of the evidence for this claim, and discuss new work investigating how syntactic bootstrapping moves beyond this first step. The goal of this work is to explore how young children’s skill at statistical learning, combined with simple innate expectations about how languages express meaning, gives rise to linguistic knowledge.
Cynthia Fisher received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989. She is a professor in the U of I Department of Psychology, and a part-time faculty member in the Beckman Institute Cognitive Science Group. Her fields of professional interest are language acquisition, speech perception, and language comprehension.