Rules and construction effects in learning the argument structure of verbs

Katherine Demuth*, Malillo Machobane, Francina Moloi

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Theorists of language acquisition have long debated the means by which children learn the argument structure of verbs (e.g. Bowerman, 1974, 1990; Pinker, 1984, 1989; Tomasello, 1992). Central to this controversy has been the possible role of verb semantics, especially in learning which verbs undergo dative-shift alternation in languages like English. The learning problem is somewhat simplified in Bantu double object constructions, where all applicative verbs show the same order of postverbal objects. However, Bantu languages differ as to what that order is, some placing the benefactive argument first, and others placing the animate argument first. Learning the language-specific word-order restrictions on Bantu double object applicative constructions is therefore more akin to setting a parameter (cf. Hyams, 1986). This study examined 100 three- to eight-year-old children's knowledge of word order restrictions in Sesotho double object applicatives. Performance on forced choice elicited production tasks found that four-year-olds showed evidence of rule learning, although eight-year-olds had not yet attained adult levels of performance. Further investigation found lexical construction effects for three-year-olds. These findings suggest that learning the argument structure of verbs, even when lexical semantics is not involved, may be more sensitive to lexical construction effects than previously thought.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)797-821
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Child Language
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2003
Externally publishedYes


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