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Toddlers May Know More About Language Than They'll Tell

If you needed more evidence of incentives for early literacy, a new study published in the latest issue of Cognitive Science finds that children as young as 2 can understand complex language structure and grammar—even if they can't yet articulate what they know.

United Kingdom researchers at the Max Planck Child Study Center at the University of Manchester and the University of Liverpool Child Language Study Center developed a series of pictures of cartoon animals involved in various activities, either together or separately. They then showed sets of pictures to 86 children, ages 2 to 4, accompanied by a sentence involving a made-up verb, such as "blick" or "dax."

Caroline Rowland, a co-author of the study and psychologist at the University of Liverpool, said using the picture-matching tests can help researchers determine nuances of children's language ability that are harder to parse out using grammar tests or the commonly used eye-gaze measures of infants' and toddlers' attention paid to unusual words.

"We've done some eye-gaze studies ourselves, but we wanted to see if we could actually get the children to make a decision, a behavioral choice," Rowland told me.

The researchers found that children as young as 2 years old could point to the picture that corresponded with the made-up verb, using grammatical cues in the sentence. For example, for a sentence like, "The duck is daxing the bunny," the children successfully pointed to a picture of a duck pressing down on a bunny's head, rather than a picture of both the duck and bunny waving. However, only children older than 3 successfully identified sentences which used a joint action with an intransitive verb, such as linking the sentence, "The duck and bunny are blicking," with a picture of the two characters kicking their legs.

"The beginnings of grammar acquisition start much earlier than previously thought, but more importantly, it demonstrates that children can use grammar to help them work out the meaning of new words, particularly those that don't correspond to concrete objects such as 'know' and 'love'," Rowland said in a statement on the experiment. "Children can use the grammar of sentences to narrow down possible meanings, making it much easier for them to learn."

Rowland told me that Claire H. Noble, study lead author at Manchester, plans to follow up the experiment with more studies probing how children learn intransitive language, while Rowland and her colleagues at the University of Liverpool are replicating this experiment with children of other languages, particularly Welsh-speaking children in Liverpool and Cantonese-speaking children in Hong Kong.

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