Research Summary: Precursors to Natural Grammar Learning: Preliminary Evidence from 4-Month-Old Infants


When learning a new language, grammar—although difficult—is very important, as grammatical rules determine the relations between the words in a sentence. There is evidence that very young infants can detect rules determining the relation between neighbouring syllables in short syllable sequences. A critical feature of all natural languages, however, is that many grammatical rules concern the dependency relation between non-neighbouring words or elements in a sentence i.e. between an auxiliary and verb inflection as in is singing. Thus, the issue of when and how children begin to recognize such non-adjacent dependencies is fundamental to our understanding of language acquisition. Here, we use brain potential measures to demonstrate that the ability to recognize dependencies between non-adjacent elements in a novel natural language is observable by the age of 4 months. Brain responses indicate that 4-month-old German infants discriminate between grammatical and ungrammatical dependencies in auditorily presented Italian sentences after only brief exposure to correct sentences of the same type. As the grammatical dependencies are realized by phonologically distinct syllables the present data most likely reflect phonologically based implicit learning mechanisms which can serve as a precursor to later grammar learning.


Publisher: Public Library of Science

Date Published: 22-March-2011

Author(s): Friederici A., Mueller J., Oberecker R.


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