Comparing solutions to the linking problem using an integrated quantitative framework of language acquisition
Lisa Pearl, Jon Sprouse
March 2018

To successfully learn language – and more specifically how to use verbs correctly – children must solve the linking problem: they must learn the mapping between the thematic roles specified by a verb’s lexical semantics and the syntactic argument positions specified by a verb’s syntactic frame. One central debate in the linguistics literature is whether this mapping is innately specified (innate-mapping) or learned (derived-mapping) during language acquisition. We use an empirically-grounded and integrated quantitative framework involving corpus analysis, experimental meta-analysis, and computational modeling to implement minimally distinct versions of innate-mapping and derived-mapping approaches and two different types of thematic role systems (categorical vs. relative). Using successful verb class learning as an evaluation metric, we embed each approach within a concrete model of the acquisition process and see which learning assumptions are able to match children’s verb learning behavior at three, four, and five years old. Our results support a trajectory where children (i) do not have built-in expectations about linking patterns to begin with, instead developing them over time, and (ii) begin with a relative thematic system, progressing towards optionality between a relative and a categorical system. We discuss implications of our results for both theories of syntactic representation and theories of how those representations are acquired.
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Reference: lingbuzz/003913
(please use that when you cite this article)
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keywords: linking problem, language acquisition, syntax, thematic roles, utah, rutah, quantitative methods, computational modeling, corpus analysis, experimental meta-analysis, argument from acquisition, argument structure
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