Children's language skills develop rapidly with increasing age, and several studies indicate that they use language- and age-specific strategies to understand complex sentences. In the present experiment, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and behavioral measures were used to investigate the acquisition of case-marking cues for sentence interpretation in the developing brain of German preschool children with a mean age of 6 years. Short sentences were presented auditorily, consisting of a transitive verb and two case-marked arguments with canonical subject-initial or non canonical object-initial word order. Overall group results revealed mainly left hemispheric activation in the perisylvian cortex with increased activation in the inferior parietal cortex (IPC), and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) for object-initial compared to subject-initial sentences. However, single-subject analysis suggested two distinct activation patterns within the group which allowed a classification into two subgroups. One subgroup showed the predicted activation increase in the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) for the more difficult object-initial compared to subject-initial sentences, while the other group showed the reverse effect. This activation in the left IFG can be taken to reflect the degree to which adult-like sentence processing strategies, necessary to integrate case-marking information, are applied. Additional behavioral data on language development tests show that these two subgroups differ in their grammatical knowledge. Together with these behavioral findings, the results indicate that the use of a particular processing strategy is not dependent on age as such, but rather on the child's individual grammatical knowledge and the ability to use specific language cues for successful sentence comprehension.
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