The privileging of ‘Support-From-Below’ in early spatial language acquisition

Laura Lakusta, Yasmin Hussein, Alaina Wodzinski, Barbara Landau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Spatial terms that encode support (e.g., “on”, in English) are among the first to be understood by children across languages (e.g., Bloom, 1973; Johnston & Slobin, 1979). Such terms apply to a wide variety of support configurations, including Support-From-Below (SFB; cup on table) and Mechanical Support, such as stamps on envelopes, coats on hooks, etc. Research has yet to delineate infants’ semantic space for the term “on” when considering its full range of usage. Do infants initially map “on” to a very broad, highly abstract category – one including cups on tables, stamps on envelopes, etc.? Or do infants begin with a much more restricted interpretation - mapping “on” to certain configurations over others? Much infant cognition research suggests that SFB is an event category that infants learn about early - by five months of age (Baillargeon & DeJong, 2017) - raising the possibility that they may also begin by interpreting the word “on” as referring to configurations like cups on tables, rather than stamps on envelopes. Further, studies examining language production suggests that children and adults map the basic locative expression (BE on, in English) to SFB over Mechanical Support (Landau et al., 2016). We tested the hypothesis that this ‘privileging’ of SFB in early infant cognition and child and adult language also characterizes infants’ language comprehension. Using the Intermodal-Preferential-Looking-Paradigm in combination with infant eye-tracking, 20-month-olds were presented with two support configurations: SFB and Mechanical, Support-Via-Adhesion (henceforth, SVA). Infants preferentially mapped “is on” to SFB (rather than SVA) suggesting that infants differentiate between two quite different kinds of support configurations when mapping spatial language to these two configurations and more so, that SFB is privileged in early language understanding of the English spatial term “on”.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101616
JournalInfant Behavior and Development
StatePublished - Nov 2021


  • Language comprehension
  • Language development
  • Semantics
  • Spatial language
  • Support


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