The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

BCS Cog Lunch 5/10 - Melissa Kline

Speaker: Melissa Kline
Title: Children’s comprehension and production of transitive sentences is sensitive to the causal structure of events
Time: Tuesday 5/10, 46-3189, 12-1pm

Young children learn about causal relationships not only from observation, but also from the language they hear. Two novel-verb studies show that preschoolers recognize that transitive sentences like `Sarah broke the lamp’ express a relationship between cause and effect. Previous work has explored only differences between prototypical events of different categories, systematically conflating causation with a number of other semantic features. The present studies show that children attend specifically to causal structure, as indicated by spatiotemporal contiguity between action and outcome subevents. Children were more likely to give transitive descriptions (‘She wugged it’) to causal than to noncausal versions of an event. Children also reliably selected a causal event when asked to ‘find where she wugged [it].’ Transitive sentences thus provide children with a rich source of evidence about the verbs they learn and the events they encounter in the world.