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Verbs and attention to relational roles in English and Tamil*


English-learning children have been shown to reliably use cues from argument structure in learning verbs. However, languages pair overtly expressed arguments with verbs to varying extents, raising the question of whether children learning all languages expect the same, universal mapping between arguments and relational roles. Three experiments examined this question by asking how strongly early-learned verbs by themselves, without their corresponding explicitly expressed arguments, point to ‘conceptual arguments’ – the relational roles in a scene. Children aged two to four years and adult speakers of two languages that differ structurally in terms of whether the arguments of a verb are explicitly expressed more (English) or less (Tamil) frequently were compared in their mapping of verbs, presented without any overtly expressed arguments, to a range of scenes. The results suggest different developmental trajectories for language learners, as well as different patterns of adult interpretation, and offer new ways of thinking about the nature of verbs cross-linguistically.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Nitya Sethuraman, Department of Behavioral Sciences, University of Michigan-Dearborn, 4901 Evergreen Rd, 4012 CB, Dearborn, MI 48128, USA. tel: (313) − 593-5139 (office); e-mail:
Address for correspondence: Linda B. Smith, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Indiana University, 1101 E. 10th Street, Bloomington, IN 47405, USA. tel: (812) − 855-8256 (lab); fax: (812) − 855-4691; e-mail:
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This research is supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development National Institute of Health grant T32 HD07475 and NIMH grant R01 MH 60200 to Linda B. Smith. We thank the members of the IU Cognitive Development Lab for helpful comments and assistance with preparations for data collection in India. Additionally, we thank J. and Brinda Sethuraman for their continued encouragement for this project; Dr Indira Sridharan and Mrs Prabha Venugopal at Sree Vignesh Creche and Pre School, Sri K. S. and Smt Bhanu Srinivasan, Smt Rukmini and Smt Sujata Krishnan for their assistance with data collection in India; Natsuki Atagi, Monica Ferro, Nicole Gealy and Sarah Hampel for their assistance with data collection in the USA; Alfredo Pereira and Dana Schuller Smith for their generous contribution of time and excellent acting talents for the experiment stimuli; Aarre Laakso for assistance with various aspects of this project; the reviewers and editors for their invaluable feedback; and most importantly, all the parents, children and adults who kindly participated in our studies. This article is dedicated to Adithya and Ravi.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-child-language
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