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J Child Lang. 1999 Feb;26(1):69-111.

A comparison of the transition from first words to grammar in English and Italian.

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Institute of Psychology, National Council of Research, Rome.


Cross-linguistic similarities and differences in early lexical and grammatical development are reported for 1001 English-speaking children and 386 Italian-speaking children between 1;6 and 2;6. Parents completed the English or Italian versions of the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory: Words and Sentences, a parent report instrument that provides information about vocabulary size, vocabulary composition and grammatical complexity across this age range. The onset and subsequent growth of nouns, predicates, function words and social terms proved to be quite similar in both languages. No support was found for the prediction that verbs would emerge earlier in Italian, although Italians did produce a higher proportion of social terms, and there were small but intriguing differences in the shape of the growth curve for grammatical function words. A strikingly similar nonlinear relationship between grammatical complexity and vocabulary size was observed in both languages, and examination of the order in which function words are acquired also yielded more similarities than differences. However, a comparison of the longest sentences reported for a subset of children demonstrates large cross-linguistic differences in the amount of morphology that has been acquired in children matched for vocabulary size. Discussion revolves around the interplay between language-specific variations in the input to young children, and universal cognitive and social constraints on language development.

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