LINGUIST List 13.1133

Tue Apr 23 2002

Diss: Psycholing: Rohlfing "UNDERstanding..."

Editor for this issue: Karolina Owczarzak <>


  1. kjr, Psycholing: Rohlfing "UNDERstanding. How infants acquire..."

Message 1: Psycholing: Rohlfing "UNDERstanding. How infants acquire..."

Date: Mon, 22 Apr 2002 09:33:37 +0000
From: kjr <>
Subject: Psycholing: Rohlfing "UNDERstanding. How infants acquire..."

New Dissertation Abstract

Institution: University of Bielefeld
Program: Graduate English Department
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2002

Author: Katharina J. Rohlfing 

Dissertation Title: 
UNDERstanding. How infants acquire the meaning of UNDER and other
spatial relational terms.

Dissertation URL:

Linguistic Field: Psycholinguistics, Semantics 
Subject Language: Polish

Dissertation Director 1: Chris Sinha
Dissertation Director 2: Hans Strohner

Dissertation Abstract: 

Why is it difficult or even impossible for two year old children to
understand instructions containing the preposition UNDER; while they
have fewer difficulties with IN and ON?

This question is of principal relevance for languages that describe
spatial relations by means of prepositions. My thesis attempts an
explanation of how children gather the meaning of spatial relations
and which role situation plays in understanding relational
requests. In approaching this issue, the understanding of spatial
relational terms was formulated in four different tasks. Every task
represents a different theoretical perspective on the interface
between language and cognition, each of which is critically examined
on the basis of the experimental results. 

For testing the role of situation, an artificial setting was developed
(the HiK-construction). This construction was seen as a 'not yet
specified' setting because the children (20-26 month old) had never
seen it before and it its physical properties were designed not to
suggest any particular relation. Moreover, using this construction was
intended to give the infants as little context as possible. 

Two experimental studies with 20 to 26 month old, Polish-speaking
infants are at the center of my thesis. In both studies, the
understanding of instructions with a spatial preposition was
tested. The first investigated what infants know about spatial
prepositions. The results suggested that infants' semantic knowledge
is guided by non-linguistic strategies. However, more than just the
two rules formulated in Clark (1973) could be observed. The analysis
of these strategies within the framework of Cognitive Grammar
(Langacker, 1987) showed that they are grounded in infants'
intercontextual and situated knowledge, i.e. their experiences with
objects in a cultural group. These strategies are involved in the
understanding of linguistic expressions and help children to react
appropriately; because they are an integral part of linguistic
communication I term them co-linguistic rather than

The second study (a training study) was dedicated to investigating the
question of how infants learn a certain preposition. Since at the age
studied, they have difficulties understanding UNDER, precisely this
preposition was trained. The results suggested that infants can learn
to understand instructions containing this preposition within two
training sessions. However, their successful understanding depends on
the type of situation. The best learning effect was found in a
well-known situation, in which infants knew the objects from the
training sessions. The learners had difficulties transferring their
knowledge to a situation with a new object. No learning effect was
found in the artificial HiK-situation. These findings support the view
that at this age, infants rely more on contextual and situated cues
than on their lexical knowledge in their understanding. 

A theoretical perspective that accounts for these findings is a
situated view of language, in which the load at the semantic level
(i.e. the construction of meaning) is partially shifted from the inner
processes of the child to the child's environment, i.e. the outer
world. There, the semantics coincide with the pragmatics as all adult
actions are influenced by cultural values and conventions.
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