General Information


We hypothesise that it is essential that preschoolers have acquired sufficient implicit knowledge of morphological and syntactic properties of their language prior to being instructed to read and write. Written language codes grammatical structures more clearly and consistently than spoken language, so learning to read and write will often lead children to detect – more or less implicitly – which elements of the language are grammatically relevant and how they are being combined to form phrases and sentences. Eventually, this will allow them to process increasingly complex written texts. The declinational system for nouns is key to understanding complex sentences and texts, as it is involved in encoding grammatically thematic roles and anaphoric relations. German declination is notoriously difficult, most likely due to the largely arbitrary assignment of grammatical gender to nouns: many German nouns possess no unambiguous phonological or semantic cues as to their gender. Such largely arbitrary grammatical categories are very hard to acquire. However, in an artificial language learning study with adult participants, Taraban (2004) has shown that syntactic cues in the morphosyntactic context of a noun are sufficient for the acquisition of semantically and phonologically unmarked gender-like subclasses, provided that the attention of the learners is drawn towards the relevant syntactic context. One way of achieving this is to present the linguistic input in a systematically structured, or blocked, fashion. A further remarkable feature of the German gender-case paradigm is that for example definite articles possess identical forms for various grammatical functions, what makes the acquisition of gender more difficult. Bebout (2013) replicated this finding with a different artificial language featuring a number of overlapping forms, as seen in German, too: For the case of definite articles, for instance, the total of 12 combinations of gender and case in the singular is covered by only six phonological forms; there are even fewer forms for the system of indefinite articles. Bebout demonstrated that it is possible to acquire artificial phonologically unmarked gender-subclasses despite such form collation phenomena in the syntactic marker system. In addition, she explored the influence of rhyme and melody on gender-like category acquisition and found out that especially a sung and rhymed version of the input induces substantial learning.


In the present study, we intend to replicate and extend these findings reviewed above from adult learners to preschool children, so as to explore how the linguistic input must be presented for these children to be effective cues to grammatical gender.


In our first study we will replicate Bebouts (2013) study with preschoolers as participants. We predict that preschoolers, like adults, also benefit from the structured input presentation and benefit even more from hearing the input in a rhyming and sung version. In a further study we will test the prediction that combining two syntactic cues to the gender of a given noun in a complex noun phase is more effective than presenting only a single syntactic cue in an utterance that is otherwise matched for syntactic complexity.


Bebout, J. (2013). Can language play promote morphosyntactic learning? A Study about the impact of rhyme, melody and input structuring on gender-like category acquisition. Unpublished dissertation, Ruhr-Universität Bochum.

Taraban, R. (2004). Drawing learners’ attention to syntactic context aids gender- like category induction. Journal of Memory and Language, 51, pp. 202-216.