Behavioral studies have demonstrated that children develop a nearly adult-like grammar between 36 and 42 months, but few studies have addressed how the child's brain processes semantic versus syntactic information. In previous research, Silva-Pereyra and colleagues showed that distinct event-related potentials (ERPs) are elicited by semantic and syntactic violations in sentences in children as young as 30, 36, and 48 months, following the patterns displayed by adults. In the current study, we examined ERPs to syntactic phrase structure violations in real and jabberwocky sentences in 36-month-old children. Jabberwocky sentences are sentences in which content (open-class) words are replaced by pseudowords while function (closed-class) words are retained. Results showed that syntactically anomalous real sentences elicited two positive ERP effects: left-distributed effects from 500 to 750 msec and 1050 to 1300 msec, whereas syntactically anomalous jabberwocky sentences elicited two negative ERP effects: a left-distributed effect from 750 to 900 msec and a later broadly distributed effect from 950 to 1150 msec. The results indicate that when preschoolers process real English sentences, ERPs resembling the positive effects previously reported for adults are noted, although at longer latencies and with broader scalp distributions. However, when preschoolers process jabberwocky sentences with altered lexical-semantic content, a negative-going ERP component similar to one typically associated with the extraction of meaning is noted.

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