Skip to main content Accessibility help

Young children fail to fully generalize a novel argument structure construction when exposed to the same input as older learners

  • JEREMY K. BOYD (a1) and ADELE E. GOLDBERG (a2)


The present study1 exposed five-year-olds (M=5 ; 2), seven-year-olds (M=7 ; 6) and adults (M=22 ; 4) to instances of a novel phrasal construction, then used a forced choice comprehension task to evaluate their learning of the construction. The abstractness of participants' acquired representations of the novel construction was evaluated by varying the degree of lexical overlap that test items had with exposure items. We found that both child groups were less proficient than adults, but seven-year-olds showed evidence of across-the-board generalization whereas five-year-olds were sensitive to lexical overlap at test. This outcome is consistent with more conservative, item-based learning of syntactic patterns in younger children. Additionally, unlike adults and seven-year-olds, five-year-olds showed no evidence of having mastered the novel construction's linking rules. Thus, younger learners are less likely to generalize abstract argument structure constructions when exposed to the same systematic input as older learners.


Corresponding author

Addresses for correspondence: Jeremy K. Boyd, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 405 N. Mathews Ave., Urbana, IL 61801. e-mail:;
Adele E. Goldberg, Department of Psychology, Green Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544. e-mail:


Hide All
Abbot-Smith, K., Lieven, E. & Tomasello, M. (2008). Graded representations in the acquisition of English and German transitive constructions. Cognitive Development 23, 4866.
Akhtar, N. & Tomasello, M. (1997). Young children's productivity with word order and verb morphology. Developmental Psychology 33, 952–65.
Baayen, R. H. (2008). Analyzing linguistic data: A practical introduction to statistics using R. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Baker, C. L. (1979). Syntactic theory and the projection problem. Linguistic Inquiry 10, 533–81.
Bates, E. & MacWhinney, B. (1982). Functionalist approaches to grammar. In Wanner, E. & Gleitman, L. R. (eds), Language acquisition: The state of the art, 175218. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bencini, G. M. L. & Valian, V. V. (2008). Abstract sentence representations in 3-year-olds: Evidence from language production and comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language 59, 97–113.
Bornstein, R. F. & D'Agostino, P. R. (1994). The attribution and discounting of perceptual fluency: Preliminary tests of a perceptual fluency/attribution model of the mere exposure effect. Social Cognition 12, 103–28.
Boyd, J. K., Gottschalk, E. A. & Goldberg, A. E. (2009). Linking rule acquisition in novel phrasal constructions. Language Learning 59, 6489.
Braine, M. D. S. (1976). Children's first word combinations. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 41, 1104.
Brainerd, C. J. & Mojardin, A. (1998). Children's and adults' spontaneous false memories: Long-term persistence and mere testing effects. Child Development 69, 1361–77.
Brainerd, C. J. & Reyna, V. F. (2004). Fuzzy-trace theory and memory development. Developmental Review 24, 396439.
Brainerd, C. J., Reyna, V. F. & Ceci, S. J. (2008). Developmental reversals in false memory: A review of data and theory. Psychological Bulletin 134, 343–82.
Brainerd, C. J., Reyna, V. & Forrest, T. (2002). Are young children susceptible to the false-memory illusion? Child Development 73, 1363–77.
Brooks, P. J. & Tomasello, M. (1999). How children constrain their argument structure constructions. Language 75, 720–38.
Casasola, M. (2005). When less is more: How infants learn to form an abstract categorical representation of support. Child Development 76, 279–90.
Casenhiser, D. & Goldberg, A. E. (2005). Fast mapping between a phrasal form and meaning. Developmental Science 8, 500508.
Culicover, Peter W. 1999. Syntactic nuts: Hard cases, syntactic theory and language acquisition reviewed by John R. Taylor, Cognitive Linguistics 10, 251–61.
Dąbrowska, E. & Szczerbiński, M. (2006). Polish children's productivity with case marking: The role of regularity, type frequency and phonological diversity. Journal of Child Language 33, 559–97.
Dąbrowska, E. & Tomasello, M. (2008). Rapid learning of an abstract language-specific category: Polish children's acquisition of the instrumental construction. Journal of Child Language 35, 533–58.
Dittmar, M., Abbot-Smith, K., Lieven, E. & Tomasello, M. (2008). Young German children's early syntactic competence: A preferential looking study. Developmental Science 11, 575–82.
Fernandes, K. J., Marcus, G. F., Di Nubila, J. A. & Vouloumanos, A. (2006). From semantics to syntax and back again: Argument structure in the third year of life. Cognition 100, B10B20.
Fisher, A. V. & Sloutsky, V. M. (2005). When induction meets memory: Evidence for gradual transition from similarity-based to category-based induction. Child Development 76, 583–97.
Gentner, D. & Medina, J. (1998). Similarity and the development of rules. Cognition 65, 263–97.
Gertner, Y., Fisher, C. & Eisengart, J. (2006). Learning words and rules: Abstract knowledge of word order in early sentence comprehension. Psychological Science 17, 684–91.
Goldberg, A. E. (2006). Constructions at work: The nature of generalization in language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goldberg, A. E., Casenhiser, D. M. & Sethuraman, N. (2004). Learning argument structure generalizations. Cognitive Linguistics 15, 289316.
Goldberg, A. E., Casenhiser, D. M. & White, T. (2007). Constructions as categories of language. New Ideas in Psychology 25, 7086.
Hudson Kam, C. L. & Newport, E. L. (2005). Regularizing unpredictable variation: The roles of adult and child learners in language formation and change. Language Learning and Development 1, 151–95.
Hudson Kam, C. L. & Newport, E. L. (2009). Getting it right by getting it wrong: When learners change languages. Cognitive Psychology 59, 3066.
Ingram, D. & Thompson, W. (1996). Early syntactic acquisition in German: Evidence for the Modal Hypothesis. Language 72, 97–120.
Jaeger, T. F. (2008). Categorical data analysis: Away from ANOVAs (transformation or not) and towards logit mixed models. Journal of Memory and Language 59, 434–46.
Lakoff, George. (1970). Irregularity in syntax. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.
Lieven, E. V. M., Pine, J. M. & Baldwin, G. (1997). Lexically-based learning and early grammatical development. Journal of Child Language 24, 187219.
MacWhinney, B. (1982). Basic syntactic processes. In Kuczaj, S. (ed.), Language development, vol. 1: Syntax and semantics. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Maguire, M. J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M. & Brandone, A. C. (2008). Focusing on the relation: Fewer exemplars facilitate children's initial verb learning and extension. Developmental Science 11, 628–34.
Marchman, V. A. & Bates, E. (1994). Continuity in lexical and morphological development: A test of the critical mass hypothesis. Journal of Child Language 21, 339–66.
Munakata, Y. (2001). Graded representations in behavioral dissociations. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 5, 309315.
Munakata, Y., McClelland, J. L., Johnson, M. H. & Siegler, R. S. (1997). Rethinking infant knowledge: Toward an adaptive process account of successes and failures in object permanence tasks. Psychological Review 104, 686713.
Myers, J. L. (1976). Probability learning and sequence learning. In Estes, W. K. (ed.), Handbook of learning and cognitive processes, 171205. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Pinker, S. (1989). Learnability and Cognition: The Acquisition of Argument Structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books.
Quené, H. & van den Bergh, H. (2008). Examples of mixed-effects modeling with crossed random effects and with binomial data. Journal of Memory and Language 59, 413–25.
R Development Core Team (2010). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. Vienna: R Foundation for Statistical Computing.
Ramage, A., Bayles, K., Helm-Estabrooks, N. & Cruz, R. (1999). Frequency of perseveration in normal subjects. Brain and Language 66, 329–40.
Rovee-Collier, C. (1997). Dissociations in infant memory: Rethinking the development of implicit and explicit memory. Psychological Review 104, 467–98.
Savage, C., Lieven, E., Theakston, A. & Tomasello, M. (2003). Testing the abstractness of children's linguistic representations: Lexical and structural priming of syntactic constructions in young children. Developmental Science 6, 557–67.
Schlesinger, I. M. (1982). Steps to language: Toward a theory of language acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Singleton, J. L. & Newport, E. L. (2004). When learners surpass their models: The acquisition of American Sign Language from inconsistent input. Cognitive Psychology 49, 370407.
Snow, C. E. & Hoefnagel-Höhle, M. (1978). The critical period for language acquisition: Evidence from second language learning. Child Development 49, 1114–28.
Strobl, C., Malley, J. & Tutz, G. (2009). An introduction to recursive partitioning: Rationale, application, and characteristics of classification and regression trees, bagging, and random forests. Psychological Methods 14, 323–48.
Tighe, T. J., Tighe, L. S. & Schechter, J. (1975). Memory for instances and categories in children and adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 20, 2237.
Tomasello, M. (1992). First verbs: A case study of early grammatical development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tomasello, M. (2000). Do young children have adult syntactic competence? Cognition 74, 209–53.
Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Williams, Edwin (1994). Remarks on lexical knowledge. Lingua 92, 7–34.
Wray, Alison (2002). The transition to language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Young children fail to fully generalize a novel argument structure construction when exposed to the same input as older learners

  • JEREMY K. BOYD (a1) and ADELE E. GOLDBERG (a2)


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.