Our Research

How do children acquire language?
What is the relation between language acquisition and conceptual development?

working with childA large part of our work seeks to understand the nature of the underlying representations and mechanisms that allow very young children to acquire the words and structures of their native language. We mostly study children between the ages three to five from a variety of language backgrounds (e.g., English, Greek, Turkish and Korean). We use multiple methodologies, including act-out tasks, truth value judgment tasks, elicited imitation/production tasks and eye tracking techniques. We are especially interested in how semantic development proceeds in domains characterized by intense cross-linguistic variability, such as the encoding of space/motion and mental states/evidentiality. A first issue of interest is how learners identify the appropriate mapping between forms and meanings in these domains, and whether the nature of this mapping task changes over development. Our studies offer evidence for the potency of different kinds of constraints (observational, syntactic, lexical) in building conjectures about motion and mental vocabulary cross-linguistically. A related issue is whether learners across languages approach the spatial and mental domains armed with a set of shared core concepts that they map linguistic expressions onto, or whether, alternatively, different languages might shape the nature of underlying nonlinguistic spatial/mental concepts themselves. Our work has identified both shared (perhaps universal) and language-specific factors that impact the acquisition timetable for spatial/motion and mental state expressions cross-linguistically.

Representative publications
2014. Skordos, D., and Papafragou, A., Lexical, syntactic, and semantic-geometric factors in the acquisition of motion predicates. Developmental Psychology 50: 1985-1998.
2014. Ozturk, O., and Papafragou, A., The acquisition of epistemic modality: From semantic meaning to pragmatic interpretation. Language Learning and Development online: 1-24.
2010. Papafragou, A., Source/goal asymmetries in motion representation: Implications for language production and comprehension. Cognitive Science 34: 1064-1092.
2010. Papafragou, A. and Selimis, S., Lexical and structural biases in the acquisition of motion verbs. Language Learning and Development 6: 87-115.

 

What is the relation between language and perceptual/cognitive systems?

LabA second, related direction in our work focuses on whether and how language interacts with human perceptual/cognitive systems – more specifically, whether linguistic categories might affect perceptual/cognitive processes. To address this question, we conduct detailed comparisons of linguistic and perceptual/conceptual representations of space and motion in speakers of different languages (including English, Greek, German and Tseltal Mayan). Some of our experiments use eye tracking to compare how people who speak different languages allocate attention to aspects of a scene/event when engaged in various cognitive tasks. Many of our studies reveal that nonlinguistic representations of location and motion recruited in memory or categorization are independent of linguistic encoding preferences. In a recent demonstration, speakers of different languages show different patterns of on-line attention allocation when preparing to speak but behave identically when they are asked to memorize dynamic spatial events. Our studies also reveal a robust, on-line involvement of language in certain cognitive tasks: for instance, language is recruited to support memory representations in high cognitive load tasks. These effects of language disappear under dual tasks that involve linguistic interference bur persist when the dual task is not linguistic. Current experiments further explore the relationship between spatial/event cognition and language by studying (i) the inventory of potential universal spatial concepts through systematic cross-linguistic elicitation studies, (ii) the interface of such spatial-linguistic universals with non-linguistic event representations, and (iii) the way rapid apprehension of events from the visual world supports language production and comprehension.

Representative publications
to app. Gleitman, L. and Papafragou, A., New perspectives on language and thought. In K. Holyoak and R. Morrison (eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
2013. Hafri, A., Papafragou, A., and Trueswell, J., Getting the gist of events: Recognition of two-participant actions from brief displays. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142: 880-905.
2013. Bunger, A., Papafragou, A., and Trueswell, J., Event structure influences language production: Evidence from structural priming in motion event description. Journal of Memory and Language 69: 299-323.
2010. Trueswell, J. and Papafragou, A., Perceiving and remembering events cross-linguistically: Evidence from dual-task paradigms. Journal of Memory and Language 63: 64-82.

 

How do children and adults use and interpret language in communication?
What is the relation between language and theory of mind?

Anna PapafragouA separate strand of our work looks at children's (and adults’) communicative abilities. We know that adults are able to rapidly combine different information types during utterance comprehension, including semantic knowledge, discourse context and visual cues, and draw conversational inferences which lie beyond the encoded content of the utterance. This raises a number of questions about how children manage to integrate lexical-semantic and contextual-pragmatic information during language processing, and how that ability relates to development of theory of mind capacities. In ongoing work we investigate (i) whether children have access to the same kinds of linguistic and extralinguistic information as adults, and (ii) how the ability to use these different kinds of information changes during development. This work suggests that children and adults share basic underlying mechanisms for utterance interpretation but differ in the degree to which they can use purely inferential vs. explicit (linguistic) cues to reconstruct the speaker’s communicative intent.

Representative publications
accepted. Skordos, D., & Papafragou, A. Children’s derivation of scalar implicatures: alternatives and relevance. Cognition.
to app. Papafragou, A. and Skordos, D., Implicature. In J. Lidz, W. Snyder and J. Pater (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Developmental Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2014. Ozturk, O., & Papafragou, A., The acquisition of epistemic modality: From semantic meaning to pragmatic interpretation.Language Learning and Development online: 1-24.
2006. Papafragou, A., From scalar semantics to implicature: Children’s interpretation of aspectuals. Journal of Child Language 33: 721-757.
2003. Papafragou, A. and Musolino, J., Scalar implicatures: Experiments at the semantics-pragmatics interface. Cognition 86: 253-282.