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Adele E. Goldberg.
How argument structure constructions
are learned.
Children have the ability to extract word forms from
continuous speech. This observation is based on
transitional probabilities between syllables.
1. Bananas with milk.
This phrase contains four transitional probabilities across
syllables: ba to na; na to nas; nas to with; with to milk.
The chance that ba will be followed by na, and that
(ba)na will be followed by nas is obviously higher than
the probability that nas will be followed by with.
Generally, transitional probabilities are higher within
words than across words.
These basic learning abilities are neither unique to
humans nor language specific. Hauser, Newport, and
Aslin (2001) discovered that cotton-top tamarin monkeys
also track transitional probabilities, and are able to notice
word boundaries.
Children have the ability to discover syntactic regularities
between categories of words as well as the regularities
in sound patterns.
The presence of an article like the or a predicts that a
noun is appearing soon. Here learners can use this cue
to find out syntactic phrase boundaries.
Children are able to combine word level and syntactic
level information.
Twelve months old children can use the discovered word
boundaries to find out regularities in the syntactic
It can be argued now that the association of meanings
with particular forms is biologically determined.
According to this view, the input for a child is not ‘rich’
enough in order to be able to learn the relevant
Thus, proponents of the nativist view believe that
language is genetically encoded in the child.
There exists a special language device which is inherent
in all humans.
Goldberg presents evidence that at least certain patterns
in language are learnable.
How can children learn form and meaning
correspondences on the basis of their input?
Table 4.1, page 73.
Some researchers argue that children already have
specific linking rules at a young age. This view implies
that the linking rules are innate and not learned from the
Pinker (1989:248) defines linking rules as ‘near-universal
in their essential aspects and therefore (they) may not be
learned at all’.
Universal linking rules include the mapping of agent to
subject, patient to object, and goal to oblique.
Proponents of the other side emphasized the
conservative nature of the early learning of children.
They demonstrated that children fail to generalize
beyond their input until they have been exposed to an
enormous amount of data at the age of 3.5 or older.
Here the implication is that constructions must be
learned, because they are acquired rather late and in a
gradual way.
Kaschak and Glenberg (2004) have investigated the
online processing of the construction This shirt needs
washed of adults.
They found that the speakers were able to read
instances of this construction more fluently after hearing
or reading other instances of the construction.
Facilitation was also found for the same pattern involving
the verb wants instead of needs, but after training on the
original construction.
Thus the facilitation effect transferred to a related verb.
The increased fluency, measured by shorter reading
times, indicates that speakers learned to understand the
The fact that the participants demonstrated increased
reading times for semantically inconsistent follow-up
sentences, even in the initial testing trials, suggests that
they were able right from the beginning to comprehend
the construction.
The study demonstrates that experience with a
construction can be acquired quickly.
Hudson & Newport (1999) showed in their study the
overgeneralizations adult second language learners
The result of their study indicates that when aspects of
distribution are not predictable, the learners tend to
generalize the more regular aspects.
Goldberg et alli. (2004) examined the early speech of
children in order to investigate the input children receive
in more detail.
Analyzing the speech of mothers, they found a strong
tendency of one verb occurring with very high frequency
compared to other verbs used in the constructions.
The verb go for example accounts for thirty-nine per cent
of the uses of the intransitive motion construction in the
speech of mothers talking to their twenty-eight months
old children.
The high percentage is significant because this
construction is used with thirty-nine different verbs in the
speech of mothers in the corpus.
Table 4.2, page 76.
The same patterns which are noted in the speech of
mothers to children are mirrored in their early speech.
Why do verbs like go, put, and give appear so frequently
in the input that children receive?
After comparing the verbs go and amble, or put and
shelve, it is obvious that go and put are used more
The reason is that they apply to a wider range of
arguments and therefore they are relevant in a larger
variety of contexts.
Additionally, each of these verbs designates a basic
pattern of experience.
Someone causing someone to receive something (give)
Something causing something to move
Something moving
These meanings involve concrete actions, so they are
readily accessible to the child.
Obviously, the verb meanings must be accessible as well
as occur highly frequent in the input children receive in
order to be frequently produced in their early language.
Table 4.3, page 78.
The generality of the meanings of these verbs as well as
their highly frequent and early appearance in the speech
of children suggests that they could help children
generalizing patterns from the input.
Ninio (1999) suggested that also syntactic patterns can
emerge from the generalization of certain verbs.
She observed that children often start to use a specific
verb with a direct object before a direct object appears
with other verbs.
Also, these verbs are mostly part of the set of general
purpose verbs.
Ninio observed that SVO and VO patterns are at first
produced with only one or a few verbs for a longer
After that more verbs are used in an exponentially
increasing way.
This increase could be explained by the fact that children
gradually abstract a more general syntactic pattern
based on the early verbs.
Therefore the growing generalization allows them to use
new verbs in this syntactic pattern more easily.
An increase in vocabulary is connected with an increase
in the ‘power’ of the generalization.
It becomes progressively easier to assimilate new verbs
into the patterns.
The current assumption is that the high frequency of
certain verbs in certain constructions facilitates children
to unconsciously establish a correlation between the
meaning of a particular verb in a construction and the
construction itself.
This will result in an association between form and