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Journal: Language learning and development : the official journal of the Society for Language Development


Children and adults follow cues such as case marking and word order in their assignment of semantic roles in simple transitives (e.g., the dog chased the cat). It has been suggested that the same cues are used for the interpretation of complex sentences, such as transitive relative clauses (RCs) (e.g., that’s the dog that chased the cat) (Bates, Devescovi, & D'Amico, 1999). We used a pointing paradigm to test German-speaking 3-, 4-, and 6-year-old children’s sensitivity to case marking and word order in their interpretation of simple transitives and transitive RCs. In Experiment 1, case marking was ambiguous. The only cue available was word order. In Experiment 2, case was marked on lexical NPs or demonstrative pronouns. In Experiment 3, case was marked on lexical NPs or personal pronouns. Whereas the younger children mainly followed word order, the older children were more likely to base their interpretations on the more reliable case-marking cue. In most cases, children from both age groups were more likely to use these cues in their interpretation of simple transitives than in their interpretation of transitive RCs. Finally, children paid more attention to nominative case when it was marked on first-person personal pronouns than when it was marked on third-person lexical NPs or demonstrative pronouns, such as der Löwe ‘the-NOM lion’ or der ‘he-NOM.’ They were able to successfully integrate this case-marking cue in their sentence processing even when it appeared late in the sentence. We discuss four potential reasons for these differences across development, constructions, and lexical items. (1) Older children are relatively more sensitive to cue reliability. (2) Word order is more reliable in simple transitives than in transitive RCs. (3) The processing of case marking might initially be item-specific. (4) The processing of case marking might depend on its saliency and position in the sentence.

Concepts: Subject, English language, German language, Grammatical case, Nominative case, Accusative case, Dative case, Personal pronoun


Across languages and event types (agentive and non-agentive motion, transfer, change of state, attach/detach), goal paths are privileged over source paths in the linguistic encoding of events. Furthermore, some linguistic analyses suggest that goal paths are more central than source paths in the semantic and syntactic structure of motion verbs. However, in the non-linguistic memory of children and adults, a goal bias shows up only for events involving intentional, goal-directed, action. Three experiments explored infants' non-linguistic representations of goals and sources in motion events. The findings revealed that 12-month-old infants privilege goals over sources only when the event involves action of an agent. Thus, unlike language (but similar to the memory of children and adults), an endpoint bias in infant thought may be restricted to events involving goal-directed motion by an agent. These results raise the question of how children later learn to collapse over conceptual domains for purposes of coding paths in language.

Concepts: Linguistics, Language, Grammar, Semantics, Verb, Semiotics, Syntax, Natural language


Joint attention between hearing children and their caregivers is typically achieved when the adult provides spoken, auditory linguistic input that relates to the child’s current visual focus of attention. Deaf children interacting through sign language must learn to continually switch visual attention between people and objects in order to achieve the classic joint attention characteristic of young hearing children. The current study investigated the mechanisms used by sign language dyads to achieve joint attention within a single modality. Four deaf children, ages 1;9 to 3;7, were observed during naturalistic interactions with their deaf mothers. The children engaged in frequent and meaningful gaze shifts, and were highly sensitive to a range of maternal cues. Children’s control of gaze in this sample was largely developed by age two. The gaze patterns observed in deaf children were not observed in a control group of hearing children, indicating that modality-specific patterns of joint attention behaviors emerge when the language of parent-infant interaction occurs in the visual mode.

Concepts: Scientific method, Psychology, Interaction, Emergence, Linguistics, Language, Sign language, Semiotics