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Cogn Psychol. 2008 May;56(3):165-209. Epub 2007 Jul 27.

Acquiring and processing verb argument structure: distributional learning in a miniature language.

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Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3UD, UK.


Adult knowledge of a language involves correctly balancing lexically-based and more language-general patterns. For example, verb argument structures may sometimes readily generalize to new verbs, yet with particular verbs may resist generalization. From the perspective of acquisition, this creates significant learnability problems, with some researchers claiming a crucial role for verb semantics in the determination of when generalization may and may not occur. Similarly, there has been debate regarding how verb-specific and more generalized constraints interact in sentence processing and on the role of semantics in this process. The current work explores these issues using artificial language learning. In three experiments using languages without semantic cues to verb distribution, we demonstrate that learners can acquire both verb-specific and verb-general patterns, based on distributional information in the linguistic input regarding each of the verbs as well as across the language as a whole. As with natural languages, these factors are shown to affect production, judgments and real-time processing. We demonstrate that learners apply a rational procedure in determining their usage of these different input statistics and conclude by suggesting that a Bayesian perspective on statistical learning may be an appropriate framework for capturing our findings.

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