• Akiko Okuno

Student thesis: Phd


Languages differ in how they encode causal events, placing greater or lesser emphasis on the agent or patient of the action. Little is known about how these preferences emerge and the relative influence of cognitive biases and language-specific input at different stages in development. This thesis presents an attempt to investigate whether there is a difference between English and Japanese people in how they map form to meaning; how these form-meaning mappings are learned; what is the relative influence of cognitive-general bias and language-specific input on children's developing linguistic representation; and whether transfer effects of syntactic or form-meaning mapping in Japanese-English bilingual speakers are observed. To answer these questions, a corpus study and three experimental studies were conducted. In the corpus study, we examined the relative use of transitive/intransitive sentences of causative alternation verbs in child-directed speech and children's speech (around age 3) in English and Japanese. Further, we investigated the relationship of animacy of agent and patient to the choice of causative alternation sentences (transitives or intransitives). The proportion of transitive usage ("transitivity bias") was calculated and 14 verbs were selected to directly compare between Japanese and English. Our results show that Japanese adults and children tended to produce more intransitive constructions than English adults and children. Children at around age 3 learned usage from their caregivers, and had already started showing language-specific patterns. In addition, animacy of patients seemed not to determine the choice of transitive/intransitive constructions by Japanese and English caregivers. Using the 14 comparable causative alternation verbs identified from our corpus study, we conducted three experimental studies. In a comprehension task, we investigated the emergence of sentence preferences to describe causal events in English- and Japanese-speaking children (aged three and five years) and compared this to preferences displayed by adults. We studied two factors suggested to influence this choice: Animacy (Study 1) and Intentionality (Study 2). Participants watched animations (Study 1) or videos (Study 2) depicting familiar and novel causal actions, and made a best-match choice between a transitive and intransitive description. We found no effect of patient animacy on sentence selection with familiar verbs at any age in either language. However, with novel verbs, English and Japanese three-year-olds were influenced by patient animacy, but in contrasting ways which mirror aspects of their linguistic input. For intentionality, with familiar verbs both Japanese and English speakers selected fewer transitive sentences for accidental than intentional scenes, but this pattern was more pronounced in Japanese speakers. However, with novel verbs, only adults showed this preference. In a production study (Study 3), we aimed to investigate whether there were transfer effects of syntactic or conceptual representations. As a procedure, English-monolingual and Japanese-English bilingual children (at age 5) described accidental/intentional causal events in English. We also examined whether in a production task, English-monolingual children (aged three and five years) and adults would replicate the results of the comprehension task. We found that there was no transfer effect on the use of any sentence constructions on the Japanese-English bilinguals, but there was a transfer effect on frequency of omission of the agent, in both accidental and intentional scenes. These results suggest that the knowledge of Japanese interferes not with their use of English sentence constructions, but by encouraging omission of the agent (as occurs frequently in Japanese). Also, with regard to the English monolingual use of causative alternation verbs, the production task replicated the results of the comprehension task. In this thesis, we will di
Date of Award1 Aug 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAnna Theakston (Supervisor) & Thea Cameron-Faulkner (Supervisor)


  • Causative Alternation
  • Cross-linguistic study
  • Japanese
  • Transitive/Intransitive constructions
  • Intentionality
  • Form-meaning mappings
  • Child language acquisition
  • Animacy

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