Verb learning under guidance

Angela Xiaoxue He

Any kind of uninstructed learning, faced by the challenge that any finite experience is consistent with infinitely many hypotheses, must proceed under guidance. This dissertation investigates guided vocabulary acquisition with a focus on verb learning. In particular, it examines some proposed early expectations that the young language learner may hold as guidance in learning novel verbs, and investigates the nature of these expectations from different angles. Four lines of studies are reported, each discussing a different question. Study 1 focuses on the expectation that the grammatical category verb picks out the conceptual category event – the verb-event bias, and examines the early developmental trajectory of this bias, which may shed light on its origin: whether it is specified within UG or generalized inductively from input. Study 2 further asks how specific/general the learner’s initial expectations about verb meanings are, and thus what is the expected degree of extendibility of verb meanings. Study 3 investigates the proposed expectation that the number of event participants aligns with the number of syntactic arguments – the participant-argument-match (PAM) bias, and questions the utility of this bias in face of potential mismatch cases; in particular, some plausible 3-participant events are naturally described by 2-argument sentences. Study 4 looks at the proposed expectation that objects name patients (ONP) and asks a question about its exact nature in face of cross- linguistic variation – whether objects are expected to name patients of the clause’s event, or to name patients of the verb’s event, and whether it varies cross-linguistically. Together, this dissertation provides new evidence that the language learner acquires verb meanings under guidance, asks new questions about the natures of some verb-learning guides, and highlights several issues the current acquisition theory needs to address.