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Attitude verbs, which typically describe mental states, like English thinkwant, and know, are found in languages around the world. These verbs pose a number of interesting puzzles. One long-standing puzzle is how children come to learn the meaning of these verbs, which describe highly abstract mental states and so cannot be easily learned by observation. An influential account explains this fact with syntactic bootstrapping: attitude verbs can be differentiated by their morphosyntax, and children can use easier-to-observe morphosyntactic distinctions to draw conclusions about harder-to-observe verb meanings.
But to what extent do attitude verbs have distinctive syntactic properties? In fact, given cross-linguistic variation, the relevant morphosyntactic distinctions might be less prominent or superficially absent in some languages, leading learners to the wrong conclusions. This talk presents two case studies from Chinese. The first case study concerns belief verbs (“think”, “know”) and desire verbs (“want”, “plan”), which can be differentiated in many languages based on the morphology in their complement clauses. However, this is not necessarily the case in Chinese, which has little inflectional morphology. The second case study concerns factive (“know”) and non-factive verbs (“think”), which can be differentiated based on the distribution of interrogative and declarative complement clauses. In many languages, these two types of clauses have clearly different word order (e.g. I think Dad likes that cake vs. I know which cake Dad likes), but this difference is blurred in Chinese, which is wh-in situ. 

Drawing from my own work on syntax and analyses of child-ambient speech, I suggest that Mandarin Chinese does not pose a severe as problem as one might fear. As many have noted (including myself), there are clear formal differences between these subclasses of verbs. I also argue that there are syntactic and/or speech act cues present in Mandarin learners’ input that can make it feasible for a child to pick up on these differences. Finally, I discuss some implications of these results for the general question of how attitude verbs might be learned, despite morphosyntactic diversity across languages.