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Word order, referential expression, and case cues to the acquisition of transitive sentences in Italian*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 November 2013

School of Psychology, University of Kent, UK
School of Psychological Sciences, University of Manchester, UK
Address for correspondence: Kirsten Abbot-Smith, School of Psychology, University of Kent, Keynes College, Canterbury CT2 7NP, UK. e-mail:


In Study 1 we analyzed Italian child-directed-speech (CDS) and selected the three most frequent active transitive sentence frames used with overt subjects. In Study 2 we experimentally investigated how Italian-speaking children aged 2;6, 3;6, and 4;6 comprehended these orders with novel verbs when the cues of animacy, gender, and subject–verb agreement were neutralized. For each trial, children chose between two videos (e.g., horse acting on cat versus cat acting on horse), both involving the same action. The children aged 2;6 comprehended S + object-pronoun + V (soprov) significantly better than S + V + object-noun (svonoun). We explain this in terms of cue collaboration between a low cost cue (case) and the firstargument = agent cue which we found to be reliable 76% of the time. The most difficult word order for all age groups was the object-pronoun + V + S (oprovs). We ascribe this difficulty to cue conflict between the two most frequent transitive frames found in CDS, namely V + object-noun and object-pronoun + V.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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Many thanks to Professor Chiara Cantiani for collecting the data, coding the standardized language subtest, and for having such a wonderful rapport with both children and nursery staff; to Dr Francesca Foppolo and Professor Maria-Teresa Guasti for help in setting up the study; to Gianluca Marvulli for editing the video and audio clips and for coding the Marco corpus; to Dr Francesca Roncarati for pointing coding reliabilities; to Samantha Durrant for scoring the MacArthur questionnaires; and especially to Anthony Mee at the University of Plymouth for writing such a wonderful stimuli presentation program, and to Caroline Rowland, the anonymous reviewers, and especially to the action editor for such detailed comments. A big thanks also to all the parents, children and ‘maestre’ at the following nurseries: Micronido Capiago, Allegra Brigata, Le coccinelle, Asilo nido ‘Magolibero’, L'aquilone, Marialuisa, Primi Passi, Cislaghi, micronido ‘Arcobaleno’, asilo nido ‘la girandola’, Scuola materna ‘Gianetti’, C. R. D. Valmadrera, C. R. D. ERBA, Scuola materna Buccinigo, and Scuola dell'infanzia ‘San Pio X’. This work was funded by a British Academy Small Grant SG-46233 to the first author. A poster of this study was presented at the 16th annual conference on the Architectures and Mechanisms of Language Processing on 6 September 2010 and it was also presented at the 12th conference of the Association for the Study of Child Language in Montreal in July 2011 thanks to a BA travel grant to the first author.



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