Identifying Differences in the Neural Correlates Underlying Semantic and Syntactic Development




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Language comprehension requires millisecond level processing of semantic and syntactic information, yet children seem to integrate and comprehend all of this information with relative ease. Although this is done effortlessly, developmental differences exist in the speed by which children process speech. By understanding how variation in the developmental time-course of semantics and syntax may contribute to individual differences in language comprehension, we may lay a foundation to better understand how language develops in atypical populations. This study uses electroencephalography (EEG) to investigate how early school-age children, late school-age children, and adults process semantics and syntax in naturally paced sentences. Children ages 8-9 years, 12-13 years, and adults listened to semantically and syntactically correct and incorrect sentences and were asked to complete an acceptability judgment task. When processing a semantic error, there were no developmental differences in the N400; however, increases in theta, related to semantic processing, were greater for 8-9 year olds than 12-13 year olds and adults. These findings suggest that the N400 may be too gross a measure to identify more subtle aspects of semantic development that are ongoing in early school-aged children. For the syntactic task, errors resulted in a larger P600 and greater beta decrease than correct sentences, but the location of the P600 and the amplitude of beta decreases differed as a function of age, suggesting specialization of syntactic skills is ongoing through adolescence. Taken together, the findings from the current study suggest that the neural substrates underlying semantic processing appear to reach adult-like levels at a younger age, while syntactic skills develop over a protracted time course to support comprehension of natural language.


Winner of the 2018 Best Dissertation prize in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences


Language acquisition, Child development, Electroencephalography, Oscillations, Evoked potentials (Electrophysiology), Semantics, Comparative, Grammar, Comparative and general—Syntax


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