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.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was supported by National Institutes of Health Grants F32-HD045053 and HD044458. We thank Renée Baillargeon, Gary Dell, and Dan Simons for helpful comments.
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