Learning words and rules: Abstract knowledge of word order in early sentence comprehension

Yael Gertner, Cynthia Fisher, Julie Eisengart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Children quickly acquire basic grammatical facts about their native language. Does this early syntactic knowledge involve knowledge of words or rules? According to lexical accounts of acquisition, abstract syntactic and semantic categories are not primitive to the language-ac-quisition system; thus, early language comprehension and production are based on verb-specific knowledge. The present experiments challenge this account: We probed the abstractness of young children's knowledge of syntax by testing whether 25- and 21-month-olds extend their knowledge of English word order to new verbs. In four experiments, children used word order appropriately to interpret transitive sentences containing novel verbs. These findings demonstrate that although toddlers have much to learn about their native languages, they represent language experience in terms of an abstract mental vocabulary. These abstract representations allow children to rapidly detect general patterns in their native language, and thus to learn rules as well as words from the start.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)684-691
Number of pages8
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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