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Construction Learning as a Function of Frequency, Frequency Distribution, and Function

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Abstract

This article considers effects of construction frequency, form, function, and prototypicality on second language acquisition (SLA). It investigates these relationships by focusing on naturalistic SLA in the European Science Foundation corpus (Perdue, 1993) of the English verb–argument constructions (VACs): verb locative (VL), verb object locative (VOL), and ditransitive (VOO). Goldberg (2006) argued that Zipfian type/token frequency distributions (Zipf, 1935) in natural language constructions might optimize learning by providing one very high-frequency exemplar that is also prototypical in meaning. This article tests and confirms this proposal for naturalistic English as a second language. We show that VAC type/token distribution in the input is Zipfian and that learners first use the most frequent, prototypical, and generic exemplar (e.g., put in the VOL VAC, give in the VOO ditransitive, etc.). Learning is driven by the frequency and frequency distribution of exemplars within constructions and by the match of their meaning to the construction prototype.

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