Syntactic priming in children: The strength and longevity of lexical enhancement
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The nature of young children’s syntactic representations remains elusive. Previous research suggests that the syntactic representations in three- and four-year-olds are broadly abstract, but whether this reflects an inherent competence or a gradual acquisition from item-based learning is as yet unclear. If one assumes the latter, children may be more disposed to effects of lexical similarity between syntactic structures than adults. A syntactic priming experiment is reported that investigated this with respect to the strength and longevity of lexical enhancement in the priming of children and adults. Both children and adults showed a strong lexical boost effect, given verb repetition between prime and target utterances: significantly more passives were produced following a passive than active prime, and still more if this prime contained the same verb as the subsequent target. Moreover, this effect was more susceptible to decline, following a lag of two utterances, than was the general (lexically different) syntactic priming effect. Crucially, neither the strength nor the longevity of this lexical enhancement was significantly different between children and adults. These results suggest that children have abstract syntactic representations similar to those of adults and provide support for a multi-factorial account of syntactic representation fitting for both children and adults alike.