[PS-2.4] Acquisition of thematic role assignment in Tagalog: Children have an agent-first bias, until they learn morphosyntactic cues

Garcia, R. 1, 2 , Dery, J. 3 , Roeser, J. 4 & Hoehle, B. 2

1 International Doctorate for Experimental Approaches to Language and Brain (IDEALAB)
2 University of Potsdam
3 Zentrum fuer Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft Berlin
4 Nottingham Trent University

We investigated thematic role assignment mechanisms in 5- and 7-year-old children who are L1 learners of Tagalog, a verb-initial language which has free argument order and voice-marking verbal affixes denoting the subject's (agent/patient) thematic role.

In Experiment 1, children and adult controls were asked to describe events depicted in pictures by producing sentences using voice-marked verb prompts. The agent was mentioned as the first NP irrespective of voice by children, but was modulated by the verb's voice in adults.

Experiment 2 was a combined self-paced listening and picture verification task manipulating agent order and picture-sentence (mis)match. Listening time results for the first NP show that younger children are insensitive to morphosyntactic thematic role cues. Adults' NP1 listening times however, reflect that they detect when these NPs are incorrectly marked compared to the given picture. In detecting picture-sentence (mis)match, adults performed with high accuracy. Younger children on the other hand ignored morphosyntactic cues, always judging sentences as a 'match' when the first-mentioned NP corresponded to the picture-depicted agent. Both listening time and accuracy results were modulated by age.

Our experiments show that children first have an agent-initial bias, which is gradually attenuated as they learn morphosyntactic cues of thematic role assignment.