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The acquisition of spatial language follows a stable cross-linguistic timetable (Johnston & Slobin, 1979) but the precise factors involved are debated. For instance, across languages, locative “back” is produced earlier and more frequently than “front”, but the reasons remain unclear (Johnston & Slobin, 1979; Levine & Carrey, 1982). One possibility is that this asymmetry is due to a semantic misanalysis: although the adult meanings of “front”/“back” are geometric (“first/second in-line-of-sight”), children’s early meanings are immature and function-based (“visible”/“occluded”), and early Back/occlusion is conceptually more basic than early Front/visibility (Johnston, 1984). Another possibility is that the asymmetry results from pragmatic inference: visibility and occlusion are simply pragmatic aspects of the meaning of “front” and “back” and the profile of “back” can be explained by the fact that occlusion is more noteworthy than visibility (Tanz, 1980). Here we use cross-linguistic data to test these hypotheses. We include two languages (English, Greek) that differ in spatial encodings (Papafragou, Massey & Gleitman, 2002).
In Experiment 1, 20 3- year-olds, 20 4-year-olds and 20 adults from each language were tested in production and comprehension of “front”/“back”. In the production task, participants watched 36 clips in which a ball moved with respect to a ground object. Test items involved 8 Front and 8 Back Scenes. Participants’ descriptions were coded for target prepositions (e.g., “front”, “back”/“behind”). In the comprehension task, participants watched the same stimuli and had to judge whether a motion path could be described by a Front or Back term (in a Truth Value Judgment task). If the “front”/“back” asymmetry in children is due to semantic misanalysis, then children–but not adults–should use “back” more often than “front” and this asymmetry should arise both in production and in comprehension. Alternatively, if the “front”/“back” asymmetry is driven by pragmatic inference, (i.e., the inherent ‘noteworthiness’ of occlusion), then adults–just like children–should exhibit a similar asymmetry and the asymmetry should only arise in production but not in comprehension.
Use of target prepositions differed significantly between “back” and “front” in children but not in adults (p<.01), in apparent accordance with the semantic misanalysis explanation. However, no such asymmetry surfaced in the comprehension of the two prepositions (p>.05; Fig.1), supporting the pragmatic inference explanation.
Might adults also exhibit the production asymmetry with less contrastive stimuli? This would remove apparent evidence for semantic misanalysis. In Experiment 2, 20 adults and 20 4- to 5-year-old children from the same language groups described 48 clips similar to those of Exp.1 but with a greater variety of motion paths (goal, source) and filler (non-Front/Back) items. In support of the pragmatic inference hypothesis, both children and adults from both language groups used “back” more frequently than “front” (p<.01), although speakers of English used more spatial prepositions than speakers of Greek, in accordance with language-specific encoding patterns (p<.05; Fig.2).
We conclude that the emergence of spatial terms does not solely index semantic development but may be linked to pragmatic factors that also shape adults’ production of spatial language cross-linguistically.