Syntactic Priming during Language Production in Children (and Adults)
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Substantial theoretical interest has generated concerning the nature of children’s language acquisition, leading to an unfolding debate regarding children’s lexically based (Tomasello, 2000) and abstract general knowledge about syntactic structure (Fisher, 2002). The present study adapts the adult syntactic priming technique to investigate the extent to which 3-and 4-year-old children exhibit effects that are parallel to a group of adult controls. We originally focused on the separation of preschool children into a younger and older group, but due to lack of disparity these were subsequently combined. Using both a strict and lenient scoring scheme, results showed syntactic priming of active and passive structures where an increased tendency to reuse the syntactic structure of the prime sentence in a subsequent target description was evident, although greater in adults. The verb in the prime and target was also manipulated leading to an enhanced priming effect in the verb repetition condition (‘lexical boost’), but this time with no apparent difference between groups. We also varied the number of intervening trials between prime and target (0 or 2 lag) demonstrating that the syntactic priming effect decreases considerably but still persists after a lag of 2 and this decay appears to be smaller in children. The lexical boost of priming however seems to dissipate over the lag manipulation, with no apparent group differences. Taken together these findings suggest that the nature of children’s representation underlying syntactic constructions is essentially adult-like, possessing early abstract representations but still using verbs in highly item-specific ways.