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Toddlers Default to Canonical Surface-to-Meaning Mapping When Learning Verbs


  • This work was supported by grants from the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR-2010-BLAN-1901) and from French Fondation de France to Anne Christophe, from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD054448) to Cynthia Fisher, Fondation Fyssen and Ecole de Neurosciences de Paris to Alex Cristia, and a PhD fellowship from the Direction Générale de l'Armement (DGA, France) supported by the PhD program FdV (Frontières du Vivant) to Isabelle Dautriche. We thank Isabelle Brunet for the recruitment, Michel Dutat for the technical support, and Hernan Anllo for his puppet mastery skill. We are grateful to the families that participated in this study. We also thank two anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.
  • Joint authorship.


Previous work has shown that toddlers readily encode each noun in the sentence as a distinct argument of the verb. However, languages allow multiple mappings between form and meaning that do not fit this canonical format. Two experiments examined French 28-month-olds' interpretation of right-dislocated sentences (nouni-verb, nouni) where the presence of clear, language-specific cues should block such a canonical mapping. Toddlers (N = 96) interpreted novel verbs embedded in these sentences as transitive, disregarding prosodic cues to dislocation (Experiment 1) but correctly interpreted right-dislocated sentences containing well-known verbs (Experiment 2). These results suggest that toddlers can integrate multiple cues in ideal conditions, but default to canonical surface-to-meaning mapping when extracting structural information about novel verbs in semantically impoverished conditions.

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