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The role of performance limitations in the acquisition of verb-argument structure: an alternative account

  • ANNA L. THEAKSTON (a1), ELENA V. M. LIEVEN (a2), JULIAN M. PINE (a3) and CAROLINE F. ROWLAND (a4)

Abstract

This study investigates the role of performance limitations in children's early acquisition of verb-argument structure. Valian (1991) claims that intransitive frames are easier for children to produce early in development than transitive frames because they do not require a direct object argument. Children who understand this distinction are expected to produce a lower proportion of transitive verb utterances early in development in comparison with later stages of development and to omit direct objects much more frequently with mixed verbs (where direct objects are optional) than with transitive verbs. To test these claims, data from nine children aged between 1;10.7 and 2;0.25 matched with Valian's subjects on MLU were examined. When analysed in terms of abstract syntactic structures Valian's findings are supported. However, a detailed lexical analysis of the data suggests that the children were not selecting argument structure on the basis of syntactic complexity. Instead, a clear predictor of the frames used by the children with specific verbs was the frames used by the children's mothers with those same verbs, regardless of whether they were transitive or intransitive. This suggests that the most important determinant of the children's use of verb frame was the specific patterns of verb use in the input rather than abstract grammatical knowledge constrained by performance limitations. The implications of these findings for performance-based explanations for children's early errors and early patterns of language use are discussed.

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Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Anna L. Theakston, Department of Psychology, University of Manchester, Oxford Rd., Manchester, M13 9PL, United Kingdom. tel: +44 (161) 275-2594. fax: +44 (161) 275–2588. e-mail: theaksto@psy.man.ac.uk

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We would like to thank all the families who took part in the research reported here. Thanks also to two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on a previous version of this manuscript. This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Grant Number R000236393.

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The role of performance limitations in the acquisition of verb-argument structure: an alternative account

  • ANNA L. THEAKSTON (a1), ELENA V. M. LIEVEN (a2), JULIAN M. PINE (a3) and CAROLINE F. ROWLAND (a4)

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