Funded Grants

Event representation and relational language learning

At the juncture of event perception and language development is the study of verbs and other relational language such as prepositions. How young children conceptualize events en route to learning relational language has been the subject of my research. Adopting an interdisciplinary, multi-method, and cross-linguistic approach, we have investigated how infants and children represent the units within events that serve language and how this representation becomes differentially codified in languages around the world.

We argue that to learn relational words, infants first universally notice a common set of foundational components in events – dividing the world in language-ready ways. As children learn how to express event components in their native language, they highlight certain components over others and metaphorically trade spaces; moving from being ‘language-generalists’ to ‘language-specific interpreters’ of events. In the process of learning relational language, infants not only attend to components of events, but language might also serve as a tool for constructing complex event concepts.

Up to this point, we have largely examined infants’ event representations and language learning for motion events and causal events in typically developing children’s first language acquisition. We have found support for the trading spaces framework. Infants attend to a variety of components within events such as path (the trajectory of motion), manner (how an action is performed), figure (the agent of an action), and ground (where an action occurs). Later, sensitivity to distinctions in events can be highlighted or dampened as children gain exposure to the patterns in their native language, achieving new perspectives on events. We also offered a bidirectional relation between event perception and language learning. Some event categories such as complex causal events (e.g., preventing a person to reach a goal) are revealed only through language as children grasp the specific meaning of events.

The proposed research builds on these studies on event representation and language learning. The main aim is to identify the exact nature of the link between conceptualization of events and language learning and pinpoint the mechanisms involved in the process of trading spaces. The goals of the current project are (1) to investigate event representations and learning relational language from a cross-linguistic perspective at different levels of representations (behavioral and neural), (2) to examine developmental trajectories for children who are raised bilingual, (3) to test children who may have atypical developmental trajectories such as brain injured children to address issues related to plasticity, and (4) to illustrate individual differences of both typically and atypically developing children in longitudinal studies. These research lines will elucidate theories on early language learning, particularly on the early interactions between language and thought in monolingual and bilingual children and will streamline our own theory of trading spaces, and provide insights onto the interventions for atypical language learning.