Preschoolers' brains rely on semantic cues prior to the mastery of syntax during sentence comprehension

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Sentence comprehension requires the integration of both syntactic and semantic information, the acquisition of which seems to have different trajectories in the developing brain. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we examined the neural correlates underlying syntactic and semantic processing during auditory sentence comprehension as well as its development in preschool children by manipulating case marking and animacy hierarchy cues, respectively. A functional segregation was observed within Broca's area in the left inferior frontal gyrus for adults, where the pars opercularis was involved in syntactic processing and the pars triangularis in semantic processing. By contrast, five-year-old children sensitive to animacy hierarchy cues showed diffuse activation for semantic processing in the left inferior frontal and posterior temporal cortices. While no main effect of case marking was found in the left fronto-temporal language network, children with better syntactic skills showed greater neural responses for syntactically complex sentences, most prominently in the posterior superior temporal cortex. The current study provides both behavioral and neural evidence that five-year-old children compared to adults rely more on semantic information than on syntactic cues during sentence comprehension, but with the development of syntactic abilities, their brain activation in the left fronto-temporal network increases for syntactic processing.

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