Children's understanding of the agent-patient relations in the transitive construction: Cross-linguistic comparisons between Cantonese, German, and English

Wing Shan Angel Chan, Elena Lieven, Michael Tomasello

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

81 Citations (Scopus)


Cantonese-, German-, and English-speaking children aged 2;6, 3,6, and 4,6 acted out transitive sentences containing novel verbs in three conditions: (1) agent and patient were cued redundantly by both word order and animacy; (2) agent and patient were marked only with word order; and (3) agent and patient were cued in conflicting ways with word order and animacy. All three age groups in all three languages comprehended the redundantly cued sentences. When word order was the only cue, English children showed the earliest comprehension at 2;6, then German, and then Cantonese children at 3;6. When the cues conflicted, none of the 2;6 children in any language comprehended in adult-like ways, whereas all of the children at 3;6 and 4;6 preferred word order over animacy (but with some cross-linguistic differences in performance as well). When animacy contrast changed across sentence types, Cantonese children comprehended the sentences differently at all three age levels, German children did so at the two younger ages, and English children only at the youngest age. The findings correspond well with the informativeness of word order in the three languages, suggesting that children's learning of the syntactic marking of agent-patient relations is strongly influenced by nature of the language they hear around them.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)267-300
Number of pages34
JournalCognitive Linguistics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Animacy
  • Causal chain
  • Competition model
  • Cross-linguistic comparisons
  • Prototype
  • Word order

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language

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