Skip to main content

Neuro-cognitive development of semantic and syntactic bootstrapping in 6- to 7.5-year-old children


Wagley NNeelima , Booth JRJames R . NeuroImage. 2021 07 21; 241(). 118416


The present study examined the longitudinal relations of brain and behavior from ages 6-7.5 years old to test the bootstrapping account of language development. Prior work suggests that children’s vocabulary development is foundational for acquiring grammar (e.g., semantic bootstrapping) and that children rely on the syntactic context of sentences to learn the meaning of new words (e.g., syntactic bootstrapping). Yet, little is known about the dynamics underlying semantic and syntactic development as children enter elementary school. In a series of preregistered and exploratory analyses, we tested how semantic and syntactic behavioral skills may influence the development of brain regions implicated in these processes, i.e. left posterior middle temporal gyrus (pMTG) and inferior frontal gyrus (pars opercularis, IFGop), respectively. Vice-a-versa, we tested how these brain regions may influence the development of children’s semantic and syntactic behavioral skills. We assessed semantic (N = 26) and syntactic (N = 30) processes behaviorally and in the brain when children were ages 5.5-6.5 years old (Time 1) and again at 7-8 years old (Time 2). All brain-behavior analyses controlled for T1 autoregressive effects and phonological memory. Exploratory hierarchical regression analyses suggested bi-directional influences, but with greater support for syntactic bootstrapping. Across the analyses, there was a small to medium effect of change in variance in models where semantics predicted syntax. Conversely, there was medium to large change in variance in models where syntax predicted semantics. In line with prior literature, results suggest a close relationship between lexical and grammatical development in children ages 6-7.5 years old. However, there was more robust evidence for syntactic bootstrapping, suggesting that acquisition of phrase structure in school age children may allow for more effective learning of word meanings. This complements prior behavioral studies and suggests a potential shift in the early reliance on semantics to later reliance on syntax in development.