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Where actions meet words :. The paradox of early verb learning. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek Roberta Golinkoff Temple University University of Delaware. With support from many students, graduate and undergraduate, and NSF. Mandy Maguire Beth Hennon Shannon Pruden Meredith Meyer Carolyn Fenter

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where actions meet words

Where actions meet words:

The paradox of early verb learning

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek Roberta Golinkoff

Temple UniversityUniversity of Delaware

with support from many students graduate and undergraduate and nsf
With support from many students, graduate and undergraduate, and NSF

Mandy Maguire

Beth Hennon

Shannon Pruden

Meredith Meyer

Carolyn Fenter

Jennifer Sootsman

Rachel Pulverman

Sara Salkind

Khara Pence

Dede Addy

Natalie Hansell

beginning at the beginning
Beginning at the beginning…

Language- what’s the big deal?

Language can

start wars

ruin marriages

allow a colloquium presentation

language is about relations
Language is about relations

The power of language is not in learning the word “cabbage” and the word “Jim” but in learning how to express relations between these words.

“Jim ate the cabbage”

“The cabbage attacked Jim”

“Jim, don’t sit the babies in the cabbage!”

verbs form the architectural centerpiece of the sentence

Verbs form the architectural centerpiece of the sentence.

You just can’t learn language without learning verbs!

in this talk
In this talk…

We begin to explore the new frontiers of

verb acquisition by studying how children

learn their first action words.

We will thus use the term “verb” loosely to

refer to action words.

With this caveat in mind…….

we offer a talk in 4 parts
We offer a talk in 4 parts:
  • The Paradox:Verbs are HARD to learn
      • But children have them in their earliest vocabularies
  • Theories of verb learning
  • Building verbs: A developmental account
  • Explaining the paradox: A beginning

What did you see?

  • How would you describe it?

What nouns did you use?

    • Sliding board? Child? Apartment building?
    • Ground? Grass?
  • What verbs did you use?

You might have used verbs like…

approach ascend bend climb

descend go grab hit

leave lift pull push

run sit slide stand

step straighten swing tuck


The “verb” problem

  • A verb encodes only part of what is happening in a motion event including (from Talmy, 1985):
    • Manner – the way an action is carried out
    • Path – the trajectory of an action with respect to some reference point

Cross-Linguistic Differences

  • Languages differ in terms of the relative frequencies of different types of verbs
    • Path and Motion
      • e.g., Spanish, Turkish, Greek
        • La mujer salió de la casa (corriendo)

‘The woman exited the house (running)’

    • Manner and Motion
      • e.g., English, Indonesian, Chinese
        • The woman ran out of the house
sliding event
Sliding Event









Gentner (1992, 2001,2003) suggests verbs are harder to learn than nouns because…

  • Verbs more polysemous than nouns
  • e.g., “run” - 53 entries!; “ball” - 2 entries
  • Label relations as compared to perceptual
  • similarity or function
  • Harder to individuate actions than objects and to
  • to form categories of actions than objects
  • ( What is the invariant in “running” when performed by
  • Carl Lewis or your grandmother?)
  • Ephemeral events: not concrete
  • e.g., running vs. cup
act ii verbs are really hard

Act II: Verbs are really hard

A demonstration from Japanese and English

the rationale
The rationale

Some have argued that a noun bias is a product of learning English. In Asian, “verb final” languages, children have a higher proportion of verbs in their early vocabularies relative to nouns. Thus, verbs might be as easy to learn as nouns in these languages.

(Tardiff 1996, Gopnik & Choi)

standard scene
Standard Scene

“見て! Xっている”

“Look! (She is) X-ing a)”

a) ‘X-ing’ is a novel verb.

two test scenes
Two Test Scenes


“In which (movie) is (she) X-ing?”

same object, different action

same action, different object

the facts
The facts
  • Participants:
    • 41, 3-year-olds (M=3;6)
    • 40, 5-year-olds (M=5.0)
  • Task: Pointing to one of two scenes on video
a replication in english meyer hirsh pasek golinkoff imai haryu
A replication in English(Meyer, Hirsh-Pasek,Golinkoff, Imai, Haryu)
  • Same tapes used in Japanese
  • Same ages: 3 (N=55) and 5 yrs. (N=59)
  • 3 language conditions:

- Noun (“Find the blick!”)

- Bare verb (“Blicking!” Where’s blicking?”)

- Rich syntax: Agent/Obj/Verb (“Where is she blicking?” “Look at her. She is blicking it.”)

act iii verbs are really really hard

Act III: Verbs are really, really hard

So we simplified the design.

Asked children to learn and extend only one novel action, no novel object present.

And they still couldn’t do it by age 3 years



We got a headache!


the paradox

Verbs are really, really, really hard to learn…


They appear in children’s earliest vocabularies

* Choi & Bowerman, 1991; Choi, 1998

* Brown ;Bowerman, deLeon & Choi, 1995

*Fenson et al., 1994; Tardif, 1996, 1999

part ii addressing the paradox

Part II:Addressing the paradox

Three theories of verb learning

three theories
Three theories
  • The “Universal Concepts” theories
  • The “Language-specific” theories
  • The “Hybrid” theories
universal concepts theories
Universal Concepts Theories




  • PATH

maps onto


“The central problem is how do children, from an initially equivalent base, end up controlling often very differently structured languages.”

Bowerman & Levinson (2001)

evidence for universal concepts theories
Evidence for Universal Concepts Theories?
  • Languages around the world draw on the same set of concepts

(Talmy, Langacker, etc.)

  • Perceptually salient (concrete, individuated) information will

be coded first.

  • Developmental data: Bowerman (1974) “ He falled it.” and

Clark (2001) (“y” for inherent properties (he is short) and “ed” for

temporary (he is tired).

language specific theories
Language-Specific Theories



  • PATH
evidence for language specific theories
Evidence for language-specific theories?
  • Words are invitations to form categories (Brown, Balaban &

Waxman; Maguire, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff ).

  • The terms, “pour” vs “spill” invite listeners to find distinctions

between these concepts.

  • Verbs learned one at a time, then generalized via

common syntax (Tomasello’s Verb Island Hypothesis).

  • Choi & Bowerman, 1991; Akhtar & Tomasello, 1997); Schlyter, (1990 on
  • bilingual development in French and German);
  • GO used with separate senses (Theakston et al.,2002)
hybrid theories
Hybrid theories







Verb meaning

hybrid theories38
Hybrid Theories
  • Natural partitions hypothesis (Gentner & Boroditsky’s, 2001; Gentner, 2003): Abstract universal concepts that are easily individuated across multiple instances.
  • Slobin (2001): Both conceptual primitives and language input work jointly in the child’s construction of verb meaning.
  • Gleitman et al, 1991, Fisher et al., 2002; Naigles: Syntax of language critical to “zooming in” on verb meaning.
  • Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff (forthcoming), Emergentist Coalition Model: children start with universal perceptual/conceptual foundation using syntactic and social cues to prune language-specific verb meaning.
the emergent coalition model
The Emergent Coalition Model

Linguistic and social cues sculpt universal concepts in ways consistent with the native language


Universal perceptual/conceptual


2nd and 3rd year of life

  • Infants should be able to discriminate and categorize universal concepts (e.g., path, manner)
  • When action meets words, children should assume that the word labels the most perceptually salient universal relational concept (e.g., path over manner)
  • Embedding the verb in rich syntax, allows children to map the verb to the action in language-specific ways
  • Attuned to speaker social intent, children should map a verb to an action in language-specific ways (in progress)
to investigate this we need
To investigate this we need…
  • To find universally available concepts used differently across languages
    • Enter PATH and MANNER
  • To find methodologies that can assess verb comprehension in young children of different ages
    • Enter Habituation, Preferential Looking (IPLP), Preferential Pointing Paradigms (PPP)

Nonlinguistic conceptions of actions in events(finding action; processing actions in ways relevant to language; forming categories of actions.)

  • 2. What happens when action meets word?
  • What does it take for a baby to learn a verb? What factors influence early verb learning?
  • How is children’s verb learning influenced by the syntax of the target language and by an understanding of speaker social intent?
study can infants discriminate proposed universal concepts in nonlinguistic events
Study: Can infants discriminate proposed universal concepts in nonlinguistic events?

Method: Habituation

Participants: 18, 7 month-olds : 40, 14-17 months

Vocabulary for older children:

Half above mean; half below (on MacArthur)

Question: Can infants dishabituate to new events that change the MANNER and/or the PATH of an event?

(Pulverman, Sootsman, Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2002)



9 computer-animated motion events

3 Manners




3 Paths






Procedure and design

  • Habituated to one of 9 stimulus events
  • Trials ended after 2-second look away or 30 seconds, whichever came first
  • Within subjects design
  • IV= test conditions DV= looking time

Test Events, an eg.

  • Control Event (Habituated to )
    • Flapping Over
  • Path Change Event
    • Flapping Under
  • Manner Change Event
    • Spinning Over
  • Both Change Event
    • Bending Past

(order counterbalanced across children)


Drumroll Please:Major Findings

7 & 14-mo olds discriminate universal action components (MANNER and PATH) in ongoing events.

2) HIGH VOCABULARY CHILDREN, pay more attention to MANNER changes than PATH changes -- consistent with prominence of MANNER in English.

-Do all high vocabulary children pay attention to MANNER? OR do children learning Spanish attend to PATH? (Pulverman et al.).

  • Children should assume that the word labels the most perceptually salient universal relational concept (e.g., PATH over MANNER)
  • A common label should focus attention on language-specific components in this case to MANNER (Gentner)
  • Children who already know some relational terms should be able to use syntactic support to learn novel verbs (Jones & Smith; Slobin)
three experiments
Three experiments
  • Experiment 1: Do 2-year-olds assume a novel verb label refers to the PATH of the action?
  • Experiment 2: Can 2-year-olds use multiple exemplars of events to guide verb learning?
  • Experiment 3: Can 2-year-olds use multiple exemplars and syntactic cues to guide verb learning?
study maguire 2003 will infants attach a word to the most salient individuated aspect of an event
Study: Maguire (2003):Will infants attach a word to the most salient, individuated aspect of an event?

Method:Preferential Looking to one of two video events

Participants: Age - 16 children at each of 2 ages (2 & 2.5)

High ( >95%) and average relational vocabulary (prepositions, verbs, on MacArthur,) 7 high

relation, 18 average

Question: Will children take a novel verb as a label for the PATH or MANNER of an event?

Path = most salient; but

English tends to label MANNER not PATH

  • Introduction: Introduce Starry
  • Salience trials: Test salience of test trials
  • Training: Teach a novel action label
  • Test trials: Does the child take the verb to mean the PATH or the MANNER of the event?



Meet Starry. Starry is fun!


Look Starry is blicking! Watch Starry blicking!


Spin over

Look Starry is blicking! Watch Starry blicking!

design cont test trials
Design cont. TEST TRIALS

Test trial 1:

Bend over; spin past

Where is Starry blicking?

Test trial 2:

Where is Starry blicking?

Test trial 3:

Mutual exclusivity

Where is Starry hirshing?

Test trial 4:


Where is Starry blicking?

  • No age differences
  • Children with more relational words looked significantly longer to the PATH even though English tends to have MANNER verbs
  • English-speaking 5-year-olds and adults all chose MANNER as the referent for “blicking.”
study can we make toddlers approach verb learning like english speaking adults
Study: Can we make toddlers approach verb learning like English speaking adults?

Method: Preferential Looking

Participants: 30 children, 2 ages (2 and 2.5 years)

Question:Do multiple instances of same MANNER (spinning) across different PATHS (around, under) bias children to assume that a novel verb labels MANNER?

NOTE: the only difference in this study is in the training video which now shows 4 different PATHS, one MANNER. The training audio remains, “See, Starry blicking.”

results nothing
Results: Nothing!
  • No age effects
  • No vocabulary effects

Significance: Seeing multiple instances is not enough to sway young language learners to a MANNER bias for verb meaning

study adding rich syntax adding sentences to last study
Study:Adding rich syntax Adding sentences to last study

Method: Preferential Looking

Participants: 30 children, 2 ages (2 and 2.5 years)

Question: Can toddlers use syntax + multiple instances to discern that the verb is labeling MANNER?

NOTE: The only difference in this and the last study is in the training which now adds syntactic information, “Look, Starry is blicking around (under, past) the ball!”

  • No age effects
  • Large vocabulary effects! The higher relational vocabulary children now assume that the word labels the MANNER.
  • As predicted: Children map verbs onto the most salient universal action concepts (PATH over MANNER, as suggested in the perception studies)
  • What helps English-speaking children move from a reliance on PATH to a language-specific reliance on MANNER? Syntax and/or multiple instances.

For children with higher relational vocabularies sentences that block the PATH interpretation, yield adult-like performance.

musings that need your input

Part 4: Given the data, how do we begin to explain the paradox?Verbs ARE hard to learn(at least in the lab), but children have them in their earliest vocabularies

Musings that need your input!

imagine that verb learning occurs on a developmental continuum gentner 2001
Imagine that verb learning occurs on a developmental continuum? (Gentner, 2001)

Perceptually based

Specific context

Social intent is clear

Rich language input

Extension limited

Contextually impoverished

Reduced language input

Social intent ambiguous

Extension even metaphorical

18 mo.

4 yrs.

evidence suggests that early verb learning
Evidence suggests that Early Verb Learning
  • is context bound and used in situations where all the cues for verb usage (perceptual,linguistic, and social) overlap
      • -Behrend, Forbes & Farrar studies - Young verb learners
      • very conservative in their extensions
      • -Tomasello “verb island hypothesis” One verb at a time.
  • This is exemplified in Chinese early verb use.

Tardiff: Children begin with more focused narrow verbs,

associated with particular and consistent routines or social contexts

(e.g., hug, kiss )

later verb learning is of two forms
LATERVerb Learning is of two forms.
  • 2.5 - 3 years - children can learn novel verbs and extend them with syntactic (or perhaps social) support (Maguire, 2003; Fischer, Naigles) BUT only in limited, related contexts (e.g, , you can substitute the agent but not the instrument)
  • 5-7 years - rapid extension to new situations is observed, the meaning of the verb is “lifted” from its originally learned context and become truly relational.
why the paradox
Why the paradox?
  • While toddlers look like they have some verbs early, when pressed in laboratory research, their limitations become clear.
  • Only older, late preschool children can represent the abstract relations between language and events. These children are no longer bound to context. E.g., Hammering can even be done without a hammer.
This raises the question: Why can’t the youngest children learn verbs that are context free? The learning problem is not with…
  • …discriminating or categorizing relations in non-linguistic events (studies by Pulverman et al., Pruden et al.).
  • …forming mappings between language and aspects of the real world -- lots of work with nouns (e.g., Hollich et al.)
  • … or even with recognizing which element in the sentence is the verb (Golinkoff et al., sensitivity to /ing/ 16-18 months)
Rather, the problem might be that verb learning requires the ability to abstract relations across multiple domains.
  • As Gentner (2003) argued…
    • As similarity comparisons evolve from being perceptual and context bound to becoming increasingly sensitive to common relational structure, children show an increasing capacity to reason at the level of abstract commonalities and rules. (p. 201)
Verb learning might not be just about verbs, it might be about the ability to reason about relationships.
indeed there are suggestive parallels in the mastery of verb learning and in
Indeed, there are suggestive parallels in the mastery of verb learning and in…
  • Number development


  • The development of analogy

(Ratterman & Gentner, 1998, 2002; Lowenstein & Gentner)

  • Even in relational noun development

Island (Keil)

Passenger (Hall &Waxman)

We don’t want to stretch this too far. Yet, we do want to leave you with some interesting final thoughts…

Adult-like verb learning is really, really, really, hard for children.

And it is hard even though, children seem to have the prerequisites that should enable them to use verbs productively

We believe that part of the problem is that to learn a verb, children have to coordinate information about relations across contexts and domains ( language, social & perceptual)

And that this coordination across relations might prove a stumbling block in language learning and in other aspects of cognition


Perhaps Piaget got the picture when he suggested that young children had difficulty dealing with relations prior to age 5.