What Infants Know About Syntax but Couldn't Have Learned: Experimental Evidence for Syntactic Structure at 18 Months

Cognition. 2003 Oct;89(3):B65-73. doi: 10.1016/s0010-0277(03)00116-1.


Generative linguistic theory stands on the hypothesis that grammar cannot be acquired solely on the basis of an analysis of the input, but depends, in addition, on innate structure within the learner to guide the process of acquisition. This hypothesis derives from a logical argument, however, and its consequences have never been examined experimentally with infant learners. Challenges to this hypothesis, claiming that an analysis of the input is indeed sufficient to explain grammatical acquisition, have recently gained attention. We demonstrate with novel experimentation the insufficiency of this countervailing view. Focusing on the syntactic structures required to determine the antecedent for the pronoun one, we demonstrate that the input to children does not contain sufficient information to support unaided learning. Nonetheless, we show that 18-month-old infants do have command of the syntax of one. Because this syntactic knowledge could not have been gleaned exclusively from the input, infants' mastery of this aspect of syntax constitutes evidence for the contribution of innate structure within the learner in acquiring a grammar.

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Knowledge*
  • Language Development*
  • Learning
  • Linguistics*
  • Male