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Language and Cognition

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language and Cognitive Science

Ed. by Casasanto, Daniel / Coulson, Seana / Evans, Vyvyan / Hart, Christopher / Kemmerer, David / Michaelis, Laura / Sinha, Chris

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Prototype constructions in early language acquisition

Paul Ibbotson1 / Michael Tomasello2

1University of Manchester

2MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig

Correspondence address: Paul Ibbottson, Max Plank Child Study Centre, University of Manchester, M13 9PL, UK. E-mail:

Correspondence address: Michael Tomasello, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, 04103, Leipzig, Germany. E-mail:

Citation Information: Language and Cognition. Volume 1, Issue 1, Pages 59–85, ISSN (Online) 1866-9859, ISSN (Print) 1866-9808, DOI: 10.1515/LANGCOG.2009.004, May 2009

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In this paper we bring together several lines of cross-linguistic research to demonstrate the role of prototypicality in young children's acquisition of the transitive construction. Much research has shown that young children are slow to form abstract constructions because they fail to see the more general applicability of syntactic markers such as word order and case marking. Here we attempt to explain this fact by investigating the nature of the language children do and do not hear, specifically, the reliability and availability of the linguistic cues they are exposed to. We suggest that constructions redundantly marked with multiple cues could have a special status as a nucleus around which the prototype forms—which makes it difficult for them to isolate the functional significance of each cue. The implications of this view for language acquisition are discussed within a usage-based framework.

Keywords: language acquisition; input; construction; prototype; grammar

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