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Cognitive Linguistics

Editor-in-Chief: Newman, John

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The attention-grammar interface: Eye-gaze cues structural choice in children and adults

1 / Elena V. M. Lieven2 / Michael Tomasello3

1Max Planck Child Study Centre

2Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

3University of Manchester

Citation Information: Cognitive Linguistics. Volume 24, Issue 3, Pages 457–481, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907, DOI: 10.1515/cog-2013-0020, July 2013

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We investigated whether children (3- and 4-year-olds) and adults can use the active passive alternation – essentially a choice of subject – in a way that is consistent with the eye-gaze of the speaker. Previous work suggests the function of the subject position can be grounded in attentional mechanisms (Tomlin 1995, 1997). Eye-gaze is one powerful source of directing attention that we know adults and young children are sensitive to; furthermore, we know adults are more likely to look at the subject of their sentence than any other character (Gleitman et al. 2007; Griffin and Bock 2000). We demonstrate that older children and adults are able to use speaker-gaze to choose a felicitous subject when describing a scene with both agent-focused and patient focused cues. Integrating attentional and grammatical information in this way allows children to limit the degrees of freedom on what the function of certain linguistic constructions might be.

Keywords: attention-grammar interface; eye-gaze; subject; argument-structure constructions; social cognition

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