Teaching the unlearnable: A training study of complex yes/no questions

Ben Ambridge, Caroline F. Rowland, Alison Gummery

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A central question in language acquisition is how children master sentence types that they have seldom, if ever, heard. Here we report the findings of a pre-registered, randomised, single-blind intervention study designed to test the prediction that, for one such sentence type, complex questions (e.g., Is the crocodile who's hot eating?), children could combine schemas learned, on the basis of the input, for complex noun phrases (the [THING] who's [PROPERTY]) and simple questions (Is [THING] [ACTION]ing?) to yield a complex-question schema (Is [the [THING] who's [PROPERTY]] ACTIONing?). Children aged 4;2 to 6;8 (M = 5;6, SD = 7.7 months) were trained on simple questions (e.g., Is the bird cleaning?) and either (Experimental group, N = 61) complex noun phrases (e.g., the bird who's sad) or (Control group, N = 61) matched simple noun phrases (e.g., the sad bird). In general, the two groups did not differ on their ability to produce novel complex questions at test. However, the Experimental group did show (a) some evidence of generalising a particular complex NP schema (the [THING] who's [PROPERTY] as opposed to the [THING] that's [PROPERTY]) from training to test, (b) a lower rate of auxiliary-doubling errors (e.g., ∗Is the crocodile who's hot is eating?), and (c) a greater ability to produce complex questions on the first test trial. We end by suggesting some different methods - specifically artificial language learning and syntactic priming - that could potentially be used to better test the present account.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)385-410
Number of pages26
JournalLanguage and Cognition
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2020


  • complex questions
  • complex syntax
  • language acquisition
  • structure dependence
  • training study
  • yes/no questions


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