Syntactic adaptation and word learning in children and adults

  • Elizabeth Swanson orcid logo (Ecole Normale Supérieure)
  • Michael C Frank (Stanford University)
  • Judith Degen orcid logo (Stanford University)


Syntactic adaptation may be a key mechanism underlying children’s learning of novel words. Havron et al. (2019) exposed French-speaking children (ages 3 to 4) to a speaker biased toward using either familiar verbs or familiar nouns in a syntactic context which permitted both structures. This prime later influenced participants’ interpretations of ambiguous novel words presented in the same syntactic frame. In Experiment 1, we successfully replicated Havron et al. with 77 French-speaking adults, using a web-based eye-tracking paradigm. Experiment 2 adapted the paradigm to English, finding that repeated exposure to a syntactic structure induced 102 English-speaking adults to update their expectations about the meanings of novel words. Experiment 3 found similar evidence of syntactic adaptation in 74 three- to five-year-old English-speaking children. Participants adapted to the specific linguistic structure used, not just the speaker’s tendency to mention actions or objects. These findings support the role of rapid adaptation during word learning and demonstrate the feasibility of conducting eye-tracking studies through online platforms.

Keywords: syntactic priming, adaptation, word learning, language acquisition

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Published on
15 Jan 2024
Peer Reviewed