Children use canonical sentence schemas: A crosslinguistic study of word order and inflections

Dan I. Slobin, Thomas G. Bever

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

306 Scopus citations


We propose that children construct a canonical sentence schema as a preliminary organizing structure for language behavior. The canonical sentence embodies the typical features of complete clauses in the input language, and serves as a framework for the application of productive and perceptual strategies. The canonical sentence schema offers a functional explanation of word-order and inflectional strategies based on the child's attempts to quickly master basic communication skills in his or her language. The present research explores sensitivity to the canonical sentence form and to word-order and inflectional perceptual strategies for comprehending simple transitive sentences in monolingual children aged 2;0 to 4;4 in four languages: English (ordered, uninflectional), Italian (weakly ordered, weakly inflectional), Serbo-Croatian (weakly ordered, inflectional), Turkish (minimally ordered, inflectional). The results show that children fail to respond systematically to sequences that violate the canonical sentence form of their particular language. They develop distinct word-order and inflectional strategies appropriate to the regularities of their language. The early behavioral emergence of linguistically appropriate canonical sentences and processing strategies suggests a behavioral foundation for linguistic constraints on the surface form of sentences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)229-265
Number of pages37
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1982

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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