Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
About us Latest news News News articles

Children say things they do not themselves understand

Important theories about our language skills refuted
04 September 2012

The fact that young children are able to construct simple sentences does not necessarily mean that they understand them. Linguist Gisi Cannizzaro discovered that on hearing the sentences they had produced, the children did not always know what they meant. Our brains do not work quite as we had thought: learning to produce language does not develop at the same rate as learning to understand it. These insights shed new light on our capacity for language, and could help us to understand language disorders. Cannizzaro will be awarded a PhD on 13 September at the University of Groningen.

You can’t build a house until the foundations have been laid. You can’t bake a cake unless you know in which order to add the ingredients. It would seem just as logical that children would not be able to construct sentences before learning to understand them. But this does not appear to be the case; our brains do not work as we had assumed. Young children can construct sentences that they themselves do not understand when they hear them spoken by someone else. This was one of the findings in the research that has earned linguist Gisi Cannizzaro a PhD at the University of Groningen.

Who is pushing what?

‘The car is pushing the cow.’ To adults, this sentence could not be any clearer. The order of the words tells you that the car is pushing, and the cow is being pushed. But children of two or three years old hearing the same sentence are not entirely sure what is going on. Is the car pushing or is it the cow? They cannot tell from the order of the words. However, they can say it the right way round if they see a picture of a car pushing a cow. Then they are able to put the words in the right order.

Chomsky under fire

For many years, there seemed to be indications suggesting that young children could say things that they didn’t understand. But this was at odds with influential linguistic theories put forward by authorities such as Chomsky and Tomasello. These theories make no distinction between producing and understanding language, and predict that the development of both skills will be more or less parallel. Cannizzaro: ‘It was claimed that any observations to the contrary were based on unsound research. We were not satisfied with this assumption. The phenomenon definitely exists; we have proved it. Current theories do not fully explain how language really develops.’

Pictures of cows

Cannizzaro set up an experiment using advanced eye tracking technology. An example: the child listens to the sentence ‘the car is pushing the cow’ while looking at two pictures on a screen, one of which shows a cow pushing a car and the other a car pushing a cow. By following the direction in which a young child looks, the researchers can get an accurate measurement of the child’s understanding of language. Cannizzaro: ‘This technology is highly reliable and provides important new opportunities for linguistic research.’

Even adults hesitate

The difficulty small children have understanding sentences is also seen to a lesser extent in adults. The research showed that even adults hesitate for a fraction of a second about the meaning of a sentence like ‘the car is pushing the cow’. Cannizzaro: ‘The order of the words is not the only important part of understanding language; the question of whether the grammatical subject of the sentence is a living being also plays a part. A sentence about a cow pushing something is apparently easier to understand than a sentence in which a car is doing the pushing.’

Less strict

The research findings shed new light on human language skills, explains supervisor Prof. Petra Hendriks. ‘Current theories state that the processes of understanding and producing language progress according to strict rules. This research shows that the rules are not as strict as the theories claim. Think of it like traffic regulations: in principle, you have to give way to traffic coming from the right. But if you are on a priority road, you don’t. We now think that ‘soft’ rules like this apply to language too. Young children still have difficulty making the distinction, but you see adults hesitating too.’

New opportunities

Hendriks also thinks that using eye tracking will present new opportunities in research into language. ‘The University of Groningen is leading the way in this advanced form of linguistic research with toddlers and young children, and is helping to formulate theory about human language skills. We will certainly continue along this path. Cannizzaro has carried out some fairly fundamental research, which is very interesting to linguists. But the insights could also prove useful in learning to understand language disorders in people with autism, for example, or after a cerebral infarction.’

Curriculum Vitae

Gisi Cannizzaro (United States, 1982) studied Clinical Linguistics at the University of Groningen and the universities of Potsdam and Joensuu. She will be awarded a PhD on 13 September from the Faculty of Arts. Her supervisor is Prof. P. Hendriks. The research was part of the ‘Asymmetries in Grammar’ research project, funded by a Vici grant for innovative research from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Cannizzaro is now working as a consultant for Edufax, A Dutch organization for international educational support. Her thesis is entitled: ‘Early word order and animacy’.


- Gisi Cannizzaro, c.l.cannizzaro

- Petra Hendriks, p.hendriks

- For more information about Petra Hendriks, see

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.50 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

More news