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Getting Passive by Extending Classes: A Novel Verb-Learning Study with Adults and Children

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Several studies have noted that young children’s accuracy on English verbal passives varies by verb depending on its lexical semantic class, rather than its input frequency (Nguyen & Pearl, 2017). Previous studies have mostly relied on children’s comprehension of passives of familiar verbs; the current study, a combination of a novel-verb learning task and a picture-selection task, breaks new ground by testing participants’ ability to generalize the passive to novel verbs based on tightly-controlled input. After learning the meaning of each novel verb via audio and visual input, participants were asked to apply that knowledge in a picture-selection task where they had to choose the picture that matched the test utterance. The findings extend verb class differences with the passive — observed for familiar verbs — to novel verbs (Messenger et al. 2012, Nguyen 2019). Surprisingly, I found that adult participants performed similarly to younger children in that they resist the passivization of certain novel verbs. I will argue that, at least at the ages tested, children’s difficulties with the passive voice lie in knowing which verbs can be passivized (depending on lexical semantics) rather than the grammatical structure of the passive itself. I will conclude the talk by discussing implications and future directions.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Linguistics Forum series.

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