Modeling spatial language acquisition as a function of lexical verb development


Learning to linguistically encode spatial relations is traditionally considered a problem of acquiring the meanings of prepositions (in, on, under). Based on production data from English speaking 4-year-olds, 6-year-olds and adults, we provide evidence for an alternative verb-based hypothesis: children and adults may essentially share spatial concepts and prepositional semantics, differing primarily in their use of lexical verbs (hang, stick, attach) to describe spatial relations. This hypothesis was formalized as a hierarchical generative model in which child and adult spatial descriptions are drawn from a common distribution, modulo a penalty on lexical verbs that is stronger for children. The model accounted for child production data significantly better than a model based on average adult performance, and the strengths of the estimated penalties were overall greater for 4-year-olds than for 6-year-olds, suggesting a developmental process in which lexical verbs gradually become integrated into the linguistic system for describing spatial relations.

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