Syntactic Bootstrapping and Learning New Words

Word learning is hard, as usual. Alison Arnold researched how kids use syntax to learn new words and what this means when words are more complex. Main takeaway: kids need to be exposed to lots of sentence structures to help them learn language.

Syntactic Bootstrapping

For the purpose of this research, word learning is defined as assignment meanings to new words (if a mom tells her son, “look, here’s a ball!” and shows him the ball, he associates ball with the toy thing). The problem is that there are many things in the environment that children don’t know words for. So how do children sort through the noise? They’re extremely good at this—in 8 months, they learn hundreds of words.

In learning these words, children look to social cues for reference, use whole-object bias (they’ll assume the new word is referring to the whole object), and use mutual exclusivity (if his mom is showing a new object and an old one, the child will assume it’s the new object).

However, these don’t work or create problems for less concrete objects (eyes or adjectives, for example).

Syntactic bootstrapping explains how this happens.

In 1990, Latisha Naigles showed that toddlers are sensitive to syntactic cues. She presented two-year-olds with a video two animals where a rabbit was doing something to a duck and a duck was doing something to a rabbit. One group received the sentence “The rabbit is gorping the duck” while the other received the sentence “The rabbit and the duck are gorping”. Then, told to find gorping in two other pictures, they could correctly identify it given the syntactic form they were given (whether it was transitive or not, specifically).

The question is, “When do children use syntactic bootstrapping?” One hypothesis is that it is only used when they understand the syntactic construction. The idea is that if they hear a very complex sentence, they tune it out. The other hypothesis is that they always try to use syntactic bootstrapping, even when they don’t understand the construction.

However, when hearing languages, children don’t always process the same way as adults do. We know that children often fail to revise initial misinterpretations. If you hear the sentence “the shark is eat-”, you might assume it will end with “eating the shark”. If you hear instead “eaten by the whale”, you have to revise that assumption. This is very difficult for children, who often fail to revise their initial assumption. Passive tense is an example of this, because it reverses the order of the subject and direct object. This can be tested by tracking eye movement, placing a target on their forehead to help the machine align.


  • Broad – “What factors affect word learning?”
  • Narrow: “Do developmental differences in children’s processing abilities affect their use of syntactic cues for fast mapping?”


39 five-year-olds were tested. Five-year-olds were tested because they were really good at fast mapping (taking new words and mapping them to their meaning) but showed differences from adults. Passive sentences were used because they add complexity without changing anything but syntax. The independent variable was the placement of the noun in the sentence because it was easier shown that placement of noun can make it easier or harder to understand sentences.

  • Fast mapping task

o   Familiarization phase – the objects were shown and shown interacting with each other so children would be able to identify them and know which ones were likely to be agents or themes.

o   Test phase – kids were given four different sentences such as “the seal will be quickly eaten by the blicket” and told to click on the blicket.

  • Recall task

o   Had pictures of the likely theme and the likely action and had them click on which one was the blicket (after 15-20 minutes)

Data and interpretation

Accuracy of their prediction was very good for active tense and varied for passive tense. This suggests that hypothesis two from earlier was correct. However, in passive sentences, they did much better when the noun phrase was placed after the verb.

For children who identified the blicket incorrectly, they were much more likely to remember their object when the object was passive and before the verb or active and after the verb. This suggests that when confused, they resorted to choosing the more visually interesting one.

Interestingly, the effects of syntactic complexity appear to also affect how likely they were to remember the word. Children did better if the new noun was after the verb or active and before the verb.

Eye-tracking was taken (children tend to look at the new word). When comparing the sentence “The blicket will be quickly eating the seal” to “the blicket will be quickly eaten by the seal”, where the agent is left of the theme, they looked at the same thing for about 2 seconds after the onset of the verb before diverging to look at the new word. However, in the NP2 condition (new noun after verb), it took only less than one second.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *