Digging up the building blocks of language: Age-of-acquisition effects for multiword phrases

Inbal Arnon*, Stewart M. McCauley, Morten H. Christiansen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Words are often seen as the core representational units of language use, and the basic building blocks of language learning. Here, we provide novel empirical evidence for the role of multiword sequences in language learning by showing that, like words, multiword phrases show age-of-acquisition (AoA) effects. Words that are acquired earlier in childhood show processing advantages in adults on a variety of tasks. AoA effects highlight the role of words in the developing language system and illustrate the lasting impact of early-learned material on adult processing. Here, we show that such effects are not limited to single words: multiword phrases that are learned earlier in childhood are also easier to process in adulthood. In two reaction time studies, we show that adults respond faster to early-acquired phrases (categorized using corpus measures and subjective ratings) compared to later-acquired ones. The effect is not reducible to adult frequencies, plausibility, or lexical AoA. Like words, early-acquired phrases enjoy a privileged status in the adult language system. These findings further highlight the parallels between words and larger patterns, demonstrate the role of multiword units in learning, and provide novel support for models of language where units of varying sizes serve as building blocks for language.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)265-280
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank Alex B. Fine, Ram Frost and Victor Kuperman for helpful discussion, as well as Doron Ariav, Klejda Bejleri, Jess Flynn, Scott Goldberg, Jordan Limperis, Limor Raviv, Samantha Reig, and Sven Wang for assistance with data collection and item preparation. This work was partially supported by BSF Grant number 2011107 awarded to IA and MHC.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Elsevier Inc.


  • Age-of-Acquisition
  • Language learning
  • Multiword units


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