Developmental Changes in the Relationship Between Grammar and the Lexicon


How does abstract structure emerge during language learning? On some accounts, children's early syntax emerges from direct generalizations from particular lexical items, while on others, syntactic structure is acquired independently and follows its own timetable. Progress on differentiating these views requires detailed developmental data. Using parental reports of vocabulary and grammar abilities, previous analyses have shown that early syntactic abstraction strongly depends on the growth of the lexicon, providing support for lexicalist and emergentist theories. Leveraging a large cross-linguistic dataset, we replicate and extend these findings, demonstrating similar patterns in each of four languages. Moreover, the power of our dataset reveals that there are measurable effects of age over and above those attributable to vocabulary size, and that these effects are greater for aspects of language ability more closely tied to syntax than morphology. These findings suggest non-lexical contributions to the growth of syntactic abstraction that all theories must address.

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