Word Frequency Is a Cue to Lexical Category for 8-Month-Old Infants

Curr Biol. 2020 Apr 20;30(8):1380-1386.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.01.070. Epub 2020 Mar 12.


The linguistic distinction between function words (functors) (e.g., the, he, that, on…), signaling grammatical structure, and content words (e.g., house, blue, carry…), carrying meaning, is universal across the languages of the world. These two lexical categories also differ in their phonological makeup (functors being shorter and more minimal) and frequency of occurrence (individual functors being much more frequent than most content words). The frequency-based discrimination of the two categories could constitute a powerful mechanism for infants to acquire the basic building blocks of language. As functors constitute closed classes and content words come in open classes, we examined whether 8-month-old monolingual infants relied on word frequency to categorize and track functors and content words. In six artificial grammar-learning experiments, we have found that infants process frequent words as belonging to closed classes, and infrequent words as belonging to open classes, and they map the relative order of these categories following the basic word order of their native language. These findings provide the earliest evidence that infants use word frequency as a cue to lexical categories and combine them to build rudimentary representations of grammar.

Keywords: acquisition of grammar; content words; function words; headturn preference; infants; lexical categorization; open-class/closed-class distinction; word frequency; word order.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cues*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Language Development*
  • Linguistics
  • Male
  • Verbal Learning*