2-year-olds use syntax to infer actor intentions in a rational-action paradigm


Verbs may refer to the means (I bumped into the lamp) or outcome (I broke the lamp) of an action (cf. Rappaport Hovav & Levin, 2010; Talmy, 1985). Do young children expect language to encode this distinction? Children’s imitation patterns suggest that they analyze nonlinguistic events in these terms. When a head-touch is the simplest action available, toddlers include just the outcome, not the means, in their own imitation (Gergely, Bekkering, & Király, 2002). We ask whether syntax influences this inference. An experimenter with her hands occupied made a toy activate with a head-touch, using either Means-focused (I’m daxing to my toy) or Outcome-focused language (I’m daxing my toy). Toddlers then imitated the action. Means- but not Outcome-focus language encouraged children to include the distinctive head-touch, overriding the standard ‘rational imitation’ effect. This suggests that toddlers’ knowledge of argument structure includes an understanding of a means/outcome divide in verb meaning.

Back to Table of Contents