Exploring the Interdependence Between Morphological and Syntactic Development in Heritage Contexts: The Case of Syrian Refugee Children in Canada

Researchers: Evangelia Daskalaki1, Aisha Barise2, Xi (Becky) Chen3, Adriana Soto-Corominas4, Johanne Paradis1
Affiliation: University of Alberta1, McGill University2, OISE, University of Toronto3, Universitat Internacional de Catalunya4
Keywords: Syrian refugee children, bilingual language development, Arabic, English, word order, syntax, morphology, subject-verb agreement, grammatical relations, heritage speakers, heritage language, comprehension, ALEQ-4, Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test
Jump to: Methodology, Findings


Overview: This study explored whether Syrian refugee children’s understanding of complex sentences in Arabic and English is affected by their knowledge of morphology (inflection), grammar, environmental influences, and cognitive factors (characteristics that affect learning).

Objective: to contribute to our understanding of the relative difficulty of syntax (word order) and morphology (inflection) for Arabic-speaking children who are learning English, and to understand the interdependence between syntax and morphology.

Research Justification: Despite the growing number of studies on immigrant children’s bilingual development, few studies have examined the interdependence between different grammatical areas. Furthermore, few studies have explored how the comprehension, as opposed to the production, of bilingual children is affected by environmental and cognitive factors across grammatical areas, and across languages.


The data in this study came from the third wave of a larger scale, longitudinal CYRRC project. Participants included 108 Syrian Arabic speaking children, residing in three English-majority Canadian cities (Edmonton, Toronto, and Waterloo) and 18 age-matched Syrian Arabic speaking children residing in Syria. The children had migrated to Canada with their families when they were on average 7;6 years old (range: 3;11-11;7). At the time of testing, they had a mean age of 11;9 (range: 8;4-15;7) and had been exposed to English schooling for an average of three and a half years. In terms of language use at home, they reported using English with their siblings, on average, 50% of the time.

Demographic information and information on home language use was obtained through a parental questionnaire, the ALEQ-4 (Paradis et al., 2019).  Children’s non-verbal cognitive abilities were measured using the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test. Children’s comprehension of complex syntax and morphology was measured with two offline sentence-picture matching tasks, developed for the purposes of the study. 

Syntax refers to the order of words in a sentence, while morphology refers to inflection. Inflection are additions to words that indicate particular relationships among words, for example, “ed”, “‘s”, etc. This study specifically looked at inflection of verbs and pronouns. Verbal inflection refers to the scenario where verbs take different forms depending on the grammatical function they serve, for example “run” and “running”. Pronominal inflection refers to the scenario where pronouns change to indicate different types of relationships when something is the subject or object of a verb. For example, “me” and “I


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