Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Event-related brain potential (ERP) studies of sentence processing in adults have shown that phrase-structure violations are associated with two ERP components: an early left anterior negativity (ELAN) and a late, centro-parietal positivity (P600). Although the ELAN reflects highly automatic first-pass sentence parsing, the P600 has been interpreted to reflect later, more controlled processes. The present ERP study investigates the processing of phrase-structure violations in children below three years of age. Both children (mean age of 2.8 years) and adults passively listened to short active sentences that were either correct or syntactically incorrect. Adults displayed an ELAN that was followed by a P600 to the syntactic violation. Children also demonstrated a biphasic ERP pattern consisting of an early left hemispheric negativity and a late positivity. Both components, however, started later and persisted longer than those observed in adults. The left lateralization of the children's negativity suggests that this component can be interpreted as a child-specific precursor to the ELAN observed in adults. The appearance of the early negativity indicates that the neural mechanisms of syntactic parsing are present, in principle, during early language development.