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What do children know about German verb prefixes? : A study on the development of verb derivation from preschool age to school age

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Not much is known about how children cope with the task of acquiring the complex, polyfunctional, and often abstract and idiosyncratic system of German verbal prefixes. This paper presents an experimental study on children’s knowledge, i.e. their morphological and semantic awareness, of the five verbal prefixes be, ent, er, ver, and zer in preschool age and early school age. The experiment combines a decision and a definition task involving canonical and novel prefix verbs, and it examines the influence of context on the recognition of the verbs.

The results of the study show that, in general, the knowledge of prefix verbs increases significantly between 6 and 8 years. Preschoolers have preliminary, but still very labile representations of the five verbal prefixes, school children have established much more independent representations, however, the lexical knowledge they have about prefixes and prefixed verbs is still fragmentary. The five prefixes under investigation differ considerably with respect to their morpho-semantic transparency. Higher transparency results in good passive knowledge of the prefixes, even when they are rarely used by the children spontaneously, such as the infrequent, but semantically salient prefix ent- (ent-kommen ‘escape’), that is much better known to children than spontaneous speech data would suggest.

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Keywords: German; L1 development; morphology; prefixes; semantics; verb derivation

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 31, 2019

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