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Young German children's early syntactic competence: a preferential looking study


Address for correspondence: Miriam Dittmar, University of Zurich, Institute of Psychology, Binzmuehlestrasse 14/21, CH-8050, Zurich, Switzerland; e-mail:


Using a preferential looking methodology with novel verbs, Gertner, Fisher and Eisengart (2006) found that 21-month-old English children seemed to understand the syntactic marking of transitive word order in an abstract, verb-general way. In the current study we tested whether young German children of this same age have this same understanding. Following Gertner et al. (2006), one group of German children was tested only after they had received a training/practice phase containing transitive sentences with familiar verbs and the exact same nouns as those used at test. A second group was tested after a training/practice phase consisting only of familiar verbs, without the nouns used at test. Only the group of children with the training on full transitive sentences was successful in the test. These findings suggest that for children this young to succeed in this test of syntactic understanding, they must first have some kind of relevant linguistic experience immediately prior to testing – which raises the question of the nature of children's linguistic representations at this early point in development.

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