Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Masur, Elise Frank

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of Psychology


Language acquisition; Children--Language


The acquisition of verbs in children's vocabularies represents an important step toward advanced grammatical development. The present study utilized the syntactic bootstrapping hypothesis and social pragmatic theory in order to examine children's ability to learn novel nonsense verbs. Syntactic booth hypothesis predicts that children acquire verbs by taking advantage of syntactic information provided by mothers during maternal-child interactions. This information must contain an adequate amount of syntactic diversity as well a sufficient amount of syntactic specificity. Social pragmatic theory predicts that children acquire verbs by taking advantage of contextual information. Maternal use of timing cues was the contextual information investigated in the current study. The facilitative effect of timing appears to be mediated by the type of verb being learned. One goal of the study was to examine characteristics of maternal speech during a novel nonsense-verb teaching task. A second goal was to see whether these characteristics predicted children's ability to understand and to produce the novel verbs. Twenty-four mothers were asked to teach their 22- to 26-month-old children two novel nonsense verbs (bock and gip). One of the verbs, counterbalanced, referred to a movement-type action and the other verb referred to a result-type action. Maternal use of syntax, sentence position, and timing cues were examined. The results of the analyses indicated that mothers fulfilled the requirements of syntactic diversity and specificity predicted by the syntactic bootstrapping hypothesis. In addition, the mothers used timing cues in a manner consistent with time predictions of social pragmatic theory. Analyses of children's ability to comprehend and produce the novel verbs revealed a limited ability to produce the verbs. Their comprehension was excellent for the result verb and fair for the movement verb. Possible reasons for these differences are discussed. Predicted correlations between maternal speech characteristics and children's performance were not significant. Results are discussed in terms of how mothers performed with respect to the syntactic bootstrapping hypothesis, social pragmatic theory, and how their simplified presentations of the target verbs were consistent with motherese. Future directions for using the existing data as well as possibilities for future research endeavors are discussed.


Includes bibliographical references (pages [91]-93).


viii, 115 pages




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