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Processing Events and
Learning Relational
Terms: Figures are More
Prominent than Grounds
Tilbe Göksun
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
Sarah Roseberry
Temple University
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff
University of Delaware
XVIth International Conference on Infant Studies – Vancouver, 2008
To process events and learn relational terms (e.g.,
verbs and prepositions), infants must:
  Parse the events into components
  Perceive and categorize these components
  Abstract them in the dynamic events
  Package and lexicalize the components according
to their native language
Gentner, 1982; Gentner & Boroditsky, 2001; Golinkoff et al.,2002;
Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2006
2
Jackendoff, 1983; Langacker, 1987; Lakoff, 1987;
Mandler, 1996; 2004 Talmy, 1985; 2000
3
These semantic components are …
 Perceptually accessible
Mandler, 1996;
2004
 Universally codified in languages
Jackendoff, 1983; Langacker, 1987; Talmy, 1985
 But also encoded differentially in languages
e.g. Path-Manner
–  English - Manner encoded in verb; path encoded
in preposition (e.g., climb up).
–  Spanish, Turkish, Greek - Path encoded in verb;
manner encoded in adverb (optionally) (e.g., in
Turkish: tirmanarak cikti “going up climbingly”).
 Conceptual primitives
Jackendoff, 1983; Lakoff, 1985; Mandler, 2004
4
Path - Manner
 Discrimination of Path-Manner
–  7-month-olds discriminate path and
manner in animated scenes
Pulverman et al., 2003; 2004
–  10-month-olds discriminate path and
manner Naturalistic scenes and human
agents
Casasola, Hohenstein, & Naigles, 2003
5
Path - Manner
 Categorization of Path-Manner
–  11-month-olds categorize path over
different manners (e.g., jump over, twist
over, flap over)
Pruden et al., 2003; 2005
–  13-months-olds categorize manner over
different paths (e.g., jump over, jump
under, jump behind)
Pruden et al., 2003; 2005
–  10-12-month-olds categorize manner
across changes in actors and paths in
realistic stimuli
Song et al., 2006 6
Path - Manner
  When infants start learning language:
–  Pay attention to language-specific aspects
•  14- to 17-month-old English-reared infants having
higher vocabularies are more sensitive to manner
•  Spanish-reared infants at the same age who have
lower vocabularies are more sensitive to manner
Pulverman et al., 2003
  English, Japanese, and Spanish speaking toddlers:
–  extend the novel verb to label path
–  by preschool age, children display language specific
preference
Maguire et al., in progress
7
So …
• 
• 
• 
• 
Infants parse the semantic components
of actions
Categorize the components
Developmental progression: find certain
constructs easier than others
Be sensitive to their native language’s
encoding with exposure
8
Figure is the moving entity performing
the action
Ground is the stationary setting where
the action occurs
e.g., The girl climbs up the mountain
9
Figure - Ground
  Universally codified in languages
Jackendoff, 1983; Langacker, 1987; Talmy, 1985
  Language specific encoding
Ground encoding
–  English
•  “Go into” refers to a path that the figure moves along
and the ground object as some kind of enclosure
–  Japanese: ground path verbs ---- ground is incorporated
into the verb
•  wataru ‘go across’
–  A barrier between a starting point and an endpoint
–  The ground should be a flat extended surface
•  The man go across the road/bridge, but not
mountain, tennis court or grass.
Muehleisen & Imai, 1997; Tsujimura, 1996
10
Present Study
 Do pre-linguistic infants discriminate figures
and grounds in non-linguistic dynamic
events?
 Is there primacy for figure or ground in
processing these events?
 Are English-reared infants sensitive to the
ground distinctions/comparisons encoded
by Japanese verbs (e.g., wataru)?
11
Method
Participants
Study 1: Figure Discrimination
7-9 month-olds (N= 24, M= 7.89 mo)
10-12 month-olds (N= 14, M= 11.18 mo)
Study 2: Ground Discrimination
7-9 month-olds (N= 23, M= 8.15 mo)
10-12 month-olds (N= 14, M= 10.79 mo)
12
Method
 Preferential Looking Paradigm
 Nonlinguistic dynamic events
 DV: Looking Time
 Example
13
Method
14
Study 1: Figure Discrimination
Familiarization
Test
15
Specific Predictions
 No preference to either side at salience
 Age differences
 Preference to novel figure at Test
 Condition differences
•  Adult-Adult, Child-Child, and Adult-Child
•  Figures on different grounds
16
Results
17
Specific Predictions
 No preference to either side at salience
 Age differences
 YES
 Preference to novel figure at Test
•  NO: At 7-9 months
 YES: At 10-12 months
 Condition differences
–  NO, but adult-child conditions
–  NO difference for conditions having different
grounds
18
Study 2: Ground Discrimination
Example 1: In Category
Familiarization
Test
19
Study 2: Ground Discrimination
Example 2: Out Category
Familiarization
Test
20
Specific Predictions
 No preference to either side at salience
 Age differences
 Preference to novel ground at Test
 Condition differences
–  Differences in ground categories
21
Results
22
Results
23
Results
e.g., railroad - road
e.g., railroad – tennis court
24
Specific Predictions
 No preference to either side at salience
  Age differences
 YES
 Preference to novel ground at Test
•  NO: At 7-9 and 10-12 months
 YES: Only at 13-15 months
 Condition differences
  Differences in ground categories
YES: Differentiated grounds depending on ground-path
verb categories (13-15 months)
25
  Do infants differentiate perceptually
salient grounds?
Out category
In category
26
 Control experiment
Black & White Screen
27
Together …
 Infants discriminate figures and grounds in
nonlinguistic dynamic events by 12 to 15
months of age, respectively
 Figures are distinguished earlier than
grounds
 When English-reared infants start
discriminating grounds in nonlinguistic
dynamic events, they pay attention to
differences not typically codified in their
language
28
Discussion
 Discrimination of grounds
–  Categorical distinctions in Japanese
–  Infants start with paying attention to narrow differences
 Parallels to phonological development
 Discrimination of figures – moving entity
–  Infants pay attention to motion
 Findings are parallel to other semantic
components in the literature
–  Differential attention to some aspects of events over others
(path before manner, figure before ground)
29
Future Studies
 Older child age groups and adults
 Parallel studies with Japanese-reared
infants
 Context vs. ground
Bornstein et al. (2007)
 Comparison of grounds with a different
action
“walking alongside the road”
 Categorization
Do infants categorize grounds depending on their
category relation?
30