Meaning before grammar: A review of ERP experiments on the neurodevelopmental origins of semantic processing
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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OriginalversjonPsychonomic Bulletin & Review. 2020, 27 (3), 441-464. 10.3758/s13423-019-01677-8
According to traditional linguistic theories, the construction of complex meanings relies firmly on syntactic structure-building operations. Recently, however, new models have been proposed in which semantics is viewed as being partly autonomous from syntax. In this paper, we discuss some of the developmental implications of syntax-based and autonomous models of semantics. We review event-related brain potential (ERP) studies on semantic processing in infants and toddlers, focusing on experiments reporting modulations of N400 amplitudes using visual or auditory stimuli and different temporal structures of trials. Our review suggests that infants can relate or integrate semantic information from temporally overlapping stimuli across modalities by 6 months of age. The ability to relate or integrate semantic information over time, within and across modalities, emerges by 9 months. The capacity to relate or integrate information from spoken words in sequences and sentences appears by 18 months. We also review behavioral and ERP studies showing that grammatical and syntactic processing skills develop only later, between 18 and 32 months. These results provide preliminary evidence for the availability of some semantic processes prior to the full developmental emergence of syntax: non-syntactic meaning-building operations are available to infants, albeit in restricted ways, months before the abstract machinery of grammar is in place. We discuss this hypothesis in light of research on early language acquisition and human brain development.