Skip to main content Accessibility help

Morphological encoding in German children's language production: evidence from event-related brain potentials*



This study reports developmental changes in morphological encoding across late childhood. We examined event-related brain potentials (ERPs) during the silent production of regularly vs. irregularly inflected verb forms (viz. -t vs. -n participles of German) in groups of eight- to ten-year-olds, eleven- to thirteen-year-olds, and adults. The adult data revealed an enhanced (right-frontal) negativity 300–450 ms after cue onset for the (silent) production of -t relative to -n past participle forms (e.g. geplant vs. gehauen ‘planned’ vs. ‘hit’). For the eleven- to thirteen-year-olds, the same enhanced negativity was found, with a more posterior distribution and a longer duration (=300–550 ms). The eight- to ten-year-olds also showed this negativity, again with a posterior distribution, but with a considerably delayed onset (800–1,000 ms). We suggest that this negativity reflects combinatorial processing required for producing -t participles in both children and adults and that the spatial and temporal modulations of this ERP effect across the three participant groups are due to developmental changes of the brain networks involved in processing morphologically complex words.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Harald Clahsen, University of Potsdam, Potsdam Research Institute for Multilingualism, Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24–25, 14476 Potsdam, Germany. E-mail:


Hide All

The research reported here was supported by an Alexander-von-Humboldt-Professorship to HC and a Cusanuswerk studentship to EF. We are grateful to the members of the Potsdam Research Institute for Multilingualism for detailed and helpful comments on the present work.



Hide All
Bates, D., Sarkar, D., Bates, M. D. & Matrix, L. (2007). The lme4 package. R package version 2(1). Online: <>.
Blakemore, S. J. (2012). Imaging brain development: the adolescent brain. NeuroImage 61, 397406.
Budd, M.-J., Paulmann, S., Barry, C. & Clahsen, H. (2013). Brain potentials during language production in children and adults: an ERP study of the English past tense. Brain and Language 127, 345–55.
Budd, M.-J., Paulmann, S., Barry, C. & Clahsen, H. (2015). Producing morphologically complex words: an ERP study with children and adults. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience 12, 5160.
Casey, B., Galvan, A. & Hare, T. A. (2005). Changes in cerebral functional organization during cognitive development. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 15, 239–44.
Clahsen, H. (1997). The representation of participles in the German mental lexicon: evidence for the dual-mechanism model. In Booij, G. & Van Marle, J. (Eds.), Yearbook of Morphology 1996, 7395. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Clahsen, H., Hadler, M. & Weyerts, H. (2004). Speeded production of inflected words in children and adults. Journal of Child Language 31, 683712.
Clahsen, H., Lück, M. & Hahne, A. (2007). How children process over-regularizations: evidence from event-related brain potentials. Journal of Child Language 34, 601–22.
Dell, G. (1986). A spreading activation theory of retrieval in sentence production. Psychological Review 93, 283321.
Elsen, H. (1998). The acquisition of past participles: one or two mechanisms. In Fabri, R., Ortmann, A. & Parodi, T. (eds), Models of inflection, 134–51. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
Everts, R., Lidzba, K., Wilke, M., Kiefer, C., Mordasini, M., Schroth, G. & Steinlin, M. (2009). Strengthening of laterality of verbal and visuospatial functions during childhood and adolescence. Human Brain Mapping 30, 473–83.
Festman, J. & Clahsen, H. (2016). How Germans prepare for the English past tense: silent production of inflected words during EEG. Applied Psycholinguistics 37, 487506.
Fleischhauer, E. (2014). Morphological processing in children: an experimental study on German past participles. Doctoral dissertation, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany. Online: <urn:nbn:de:kobv:517-opus-70581>.
Fleischhauer, E. & Clahsen, H. (2012). Generating inflected word forms in real time: evaluating the role of age, frequency, and working memory In Biller, A., Chung, E. & Kimball, A. (eds), Proceedings of the 36th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, Vol. 1, 164–76. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Indefrey, P. & Levelt, W. J. (2004). The spatial and temporal signatures of word production components. Cognition 92, 101–44.
Jansma, B. M., Rodriguez-Fornells, A., Möller, J. & Münte, T. F. (2004). Electrophysiological studies of speech production. In Pechmann, T. & Habel, C. (eds), Multidisciplinary approaches to language production (pp. 361395). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Janssen, D. P., Roelofs, A. & Levelt, W. J. (2002). Inflectional frames in language production. Language and Cognitive Processes 17, 209–36.
Kappenman, E. S. & Luck, S. J. (2010). The effects of electrode impedance on data quality and statistical significance in ERP recordings. Psychophysiology 47, 888904.
Koester, D. & Schiller, N. O. (2008). Morphological priming in overt language production: electrophysiological evidence from Dutch. Neuroimage 42, 1622–30.
Laganaro, M., Tzieropoulos, H., Frauenfelder, U. H. & Zesiger, P. (2015). Functional and time-course changes in single word production from childhood to adulthood. NeuroImage 111, 204–14.
Lavric, A., Pizzagalli, D., Forstmeier, S. & Rippon, G. (2001). A double-dissociation of English past-tense production revealed by event-related potentials and low-resolution electromagnetic tomography (LORETA). Clinical Neurophysiology 112, 1833–49.
Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: from intention to articulation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Levelt, W. J. M. (1999). Models of word production. Trends in Cognitive Science 3, 223323.
Lidzba, K., Schwilling, E., Grodd, W., Krägeloh-Mann, I. & Wilke, M. (2011). Language comprehension vs. language production: age effects on fMRI activation. Brain and Language 119, 615.
Lindner, K. (1998). Overgeneralization revisited: the case of German past participles. In Fabri, R., Ortmann, A. & Parodi, T. (eds), Models of inflection, 152–74. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
Lück, M., Hahne, A. & Clahsen, H. (2006). Brain potentials to morphologically complex words during listening. Brain Research 1077, 144–52.
Penke, M., Weyerts, H., Gross, M., Zander, E., Münte, T. F. & Clahsen, H. (1997). How the brain processes complex words: an event-related potential study of German verb inflections. Cognitive Brain Research 6, 3752.
Prado, E. L. & Ullman, M. T. (2009). Can imageability help us draw the line between storage and composition? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 35, 849–66.
R Core Team (2012). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. Online: <>.
Rahman, R. A., Van Turennout, M. & Levelt, W. J. (2003). Phonological encoding is not contingent on semantic feature retrieval: an electrophysiological study on object naming. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 29, 850–60.
Sahin, N. T., Pinker, S., Cash, S. S., Schomer, D. & Halgren, E. (2009). Sequential processing of lexical, grammatical, and phonological information within Broca's area. Science 326, 445–9.
Schmidt, T., Dickgießer, S. & Gasch, J. (2013). Die Datenbank für Gesprochenes Deutsch-DGD2. Online: <>.
Schmitt, B. M., Münte, T. F. & Kutas, M. (2000). Electrophysiological estimates of the time course of semantic and phonological encoding during implicit picture naming. Psychophysiology 37, 473–84.
Schroeder, S., Würzner, K. M., Heister, J., Geyken, A. & Kliegl, R. (2015). childLex: a lexical database of German read by children. Behavior Research Methods 47, 1085–94.
Strijkers, K., Holcomb, P. J. & Costa, A. (2011). Conscious intention to speak proactively facilitates lexical access during overt object naming. Journal of Memory and Language 65, 345–62.
Szagun, G. (2011). Regular/irregular is not the whole story: the role of frequency and generalization in the acquisition of German past participle inflection. Journal of Child Language 38, 731–62.
Weyerts, H. & Clahsen, H. (1994). Netzwerke und symbolische Regeln im Spracherwerb: experimentelle Ergebnisse zur Entwicklung der Flexionsmorphologie. Linguistische Berichte 154, 430–60.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-child-language
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed