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Abstract Chen, Duvignau, Gaume, Parente & Tonietto

Does number of action labels predict an early acquisition of the conventional meaning of verbs?

Translinguistic studies showed a reduced “noun bias” in early acquisition in Chinese speaking children. They focused on quantitative differences in early word production, and not on children’s strategies to acquire the conventional meaning of action labels. The present work studied a latter period of acquisition when the dramatic increase in vocabulary shows an underlying categorical organization of language. The main questions were: Does a greater number of action labels predict an early conventional use of such labels? How this comparison can help us to understand the Lexical Bootstrapping Hypothesis (LBH)?

Our sample consisted of 39 monolingual Chinese-speaking children and 40 monolingual Portuguese-speaking children, both groups being aged from 37 to 49 months. They were compared with 33 Chinese university students and 40 Portuguese university students, aged from 19 to 24 years. Each subject was submitted to a task of naming action-videos (“What did the women do?”), followed by a reformulation task (“Can you tell this in other words?”).

Our results confirm the greater diversity of action labels produced by Chinese children, when compared to Portuguese-speaking children, in accordance to earlier translinguistic studies, but no cultural differences were found on the use of the conventional meaning. Structural linguistic differences of Chinese and Portuguese language, as well as social-pragmatic aspects can explain translinguistic differences. Nevertheless, a larger vocabulary does not predict a more rapid development of the conventional use. This result can be explained from an evolutionary point of view, focusing on the amount of cognitive resources directed to learning language.

Different strategies used by children of the two countries were observed. Portuguese-speaking children have to discover what range of actions one generic verb label denotes, that is, they must learn to abstract relation of an event to use a single label in a broader range of action. On the other hand, Chinese-speaking children must know which label among several ones denotes a single action.

There is no radical critic against the lexical LBH due to its relation to cognitive resources. Linguistic categorization needs a genetic plasticity, in order to continually modify existing categories according to new experiences and also adapt to the set of categories a specific language impose on its users, mainly during language development. Methodological approaches addressing LBH are discussed, since several studies do not take in account the overlap between the development of labeling and the conventional use imposed by a specific language system.