Twelve to 24-month-olds can understand the meaning of morphological regularities in their language

Alissa Ferry, Marina Nespor, Jacques Mehler

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To learn a language infants must learn to link arbitrary sounds to their meaning. While words are the clearest example of this link, they are not the only component of language; morphological regularities (e.g., the plural –s suffix in English) carry meaning as well. Comprehensive theories of language acquisition must account for how infants build links between these other parts of language and their meaning. Here, we investigated the acquisition of morphology in infants learning Italian, a language with a rich inflectional morphology that marks both gender and number on both the article and final vowel of nouns. We demonstrate that infants can build these links between concepts and morphological regularities much earlier than previously thought. Italian-learning 12- 18- and 24-month-olds were shown pairs of images of faces that differed either in number (1 female vs. 2 females; 1 male vs. 2 males) or gender (1 female vs. 1 male; 2 females vs. 2 males). On each trial infants were directed to look at one of the images with the morphological regularities as the only distinguishing cue. Overall, across all ages, the infants looked to the labelled image, indicating that they had at least some understanding of the morphology. While infants succeeded on both gender comparisons, they only showed evidence of understanding the feminine number distinction. These results indicate that in the early stages of language acquisition, infants are able to identify recurring morphemes and to map those morphological regularities to the concepts that they mark in the language.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)40-52
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020


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