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Is children’s comprehension of subject-verb agreement universally late? Comparative evidence from French, English, and Spanish.

Previous research has suggested that comprehension of agreement morphology is surprisingly late (e.g. compared to production), prompting explanations attributing acquisition difficulty to various universal or language-particular features of agreement. In this paper we synthesize research from three languages---French, Spanish, and English---to argue that comprehension of subject--verb agreement is not in fact universally late, supporting the hypothesis that differences result from language particular features. We review evidence showing that French-speaking children master at least one subsystem of agreement---marked by a liaison consonant---by the age of 30 months (Legendre et al., 2010b). By contrast, we present novel results using the same methods, and identical visual stimuli, that fail to reveal evidence of comprehension in English, and reveal only partial success in Spanish at a comparable age. The novel results confirm the comprehension delays identified previously in Johnson et al. (2005) and Pérez-Leroux (2005). We argue that differences in perceptual saliency and cue reliability across the relevant agreement systems present a promising explanation of cross-linguistic asymmetries in age of comprehension.



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