RUI: Conceptual Foundations of Language: Infants' Representations of Sources and Goals in Events

Project Details


Consider the event of a dog dashing out of a doghouse and jumping into a pool. Even infants can think about such events, and then, as young children, they are able to readily talk about them. How is this accomplished? The task is far from simple; language represents an event's components in a highly abstract format (e.g., in the English language, 'the dog' is mapped into a Noun Phrase, 'dashing' is mapped into a Verb Phrase, and 'into' is mapped into a Prepositional Phrase). Do infants also represent an event's components abstractly; for example, do they represent the specific dog in the event as belonging to a class of things in the world referred to as 'dogs'? Or, do infants represent an event's components concretely; for example, do they represent the dog in the event only as their specific dog Toto? Further, does learning language influence the way infants think about the world? The proposed studies will address these fundamental questions by exploring how infants represent two understudied components of motion events--starting points ('out of a doghouse') and endpoints ('into a pool'). The proposed research will use an infant-controlled looking time method to test whether infants represent starting points and endpoints across different motion events abstractly. Further, the proposed studies will use two measures of language development to explore whether and how infants' representations of starting points and endpoints are related to the acquisition of language.

The findings from the proposed research will have significant implications for theories in developmental cognitive psychology, as well as linguistics, and will impact society more broadly, as well as students. In regards to theory, the findings will shed light on the possible mechanisms of language acquisition (how does language influence how infants represent events?), as well as the nature of infant event representations (are infants' representations abstract or are they narrow and concrete?). Further, the findings will be pertinent to fundamental questions in linguistic theory, such as, do language representations directly reflect the nature of human cognition, including thought in infancy? Second, in regards to society, the proposed research will contribute to a more thorough characterization of cognitive and language development in typically developing children, which can then be applied to children who may be developing atypically. Lastly, in regards to students, this project promotes the involvement of students from underrepresented groups by involving a diverse group of undergraduate and Master's level graduate students. Students will be mentored on all aspects of the research project, thus exposing them to the rigor and merit of scientific research.

Effective start/end date15/06/1231/01/17


  • National Science Foundation: $384,460.00


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