3-year-olds' comprehension, production, and generalization of Sesotho passives

Katherine Demuth*, Francina Moloi, Malillo Machobane

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    40 Citations (Scopus)


    Researchers have long been puzzled by the challenge English passive constructions present for language learners, with adult-like comprehension and production emerging only around the age of 5. It has therefore been of significant interest that researchers of other languages, including the Bantu language Sesotho, have reported acquisition of the passive by the age of 3 (Demuth, 1989). Such reports have typically been based on spontaneous production data, calling for further investigation. This study carried out a series of experiments with Sesotho-speaking 3-year-olds, testing their ability to comprehend the passive, produce the passive, and generalize novel verbs to passive frames. The results showed that passive comprehension was good, with no effect of actional/non-actional verb type. Elicited production of the passive was also good, with no difference between adversive and non-adversive verbs. Finally, all participants made both active and passive generalizations to novel verbs. These findings provide strong evidence that Sesotho-speaking 3-year-olds have robust, abstract knowledge of passive syntax. The paper concludes with a discussion of the factors that contribute to the early learning of the Sesotho passive, why acquisition of the passive may be delayed in English, and the implications for understanding grammatical development more generally.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)238-251
    Number of pages14
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - May 2010


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