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Information structure lecture series 2008 -

Abstract De Cat

Discourse phenomena have come to the forefront of research, both in theoretical and applied linguistics. Yet little is known to date of the acquisition of information structure (Erteschik-Shir 2007). This elicitation study investigates preschoolers’ ability to track and encode the information status of discourse referents. This requires them to build in their mind an active representation of the discourse on the basis of the distinctions of focus and presupposition, and to master the mapping of these notions onto the relevant morphological and structural distinctions (subject to cross-linguistic variation).

It has been suggested that morphological distinctions may be easier and hence earlier acquired than structural distinctions encoding information status (Hickmann et al. 1996). Experimental evidence has also revealed residual difficulties with definiteness distinctions upto the age of 4 (Schaefer and de Villiers 2000; Schaeffer and Matthewson 2005; Modyanova and Wexler 2007).

Our two main research questions are: (i) Is there any evidence for a dissociation of morphological and structural markings encoding information status in the early stages (so that one may be acquired earlier)? (ii) What causes definiteness errors? Are they due to limitations in linguistic competence or cognitive abilities?

An elicitation task was conducted on 45 monolingual children acquiring French as their L1 (15 per group — mean ages: 2;11, 4 and 5;2) and 15 adolescent/adult controls. Each participant was asked to tell two stories (5 pictures each) to a blindfolded interviewer. A Theory of Mind (ToM) test was also carried out, to ascertain from what age the children knew that seeing leads to knowing (O’Neill 1996).

Structural and definiteness distinctions were found to be correlated in target-like fashion even in the speech of the youngest children: (i) they mostly encoded new information with indefinites in focus structures (90%, 104/120) and (ii) never used new-information indefinites in topic structures. This indicates continuity between child and adult systems and rules out the possibility that one type of marker be acquired ahead of the other.

Illicit use of indefinites encoding non-new referents only occurred on first mention of that referent within a picture-context (i.e. after a page turn: 78%, 70/112 in the youngest, 23%, 28/142 in the oldest group), and never on first mention in the story-context (youngest: 0/26, oldest: 0/56). This is argued to be due to initial difficulties with discourse integration, which in some cases at least stemmed from the non-recognition of characters from the previous pictures.

Illicit use of definites encoding new information (youngest: 6%, 12/122), often attributed to ‘egocentricity’, continue to be attested in the group of children who passed the ToM test (7%, 18/256), which suggests that an additional factor is at play.

Additional indicators of definiteness mastery are explored (generic and partitive contexts requiring definites; bridging and uniqueness; non-referential NPs). The evidence indicates that the linguistic competence underlying information structure is in place from at least 2;6. The ‘errors’ identified are shown to stem from cognitive limitations.

Methodological consequences for elicitation studies as well as theoretical consequences regarding the architecture of the language faculty are discussed.


Erteschik-Shir, N., 2007. Information Structure. The Syntax-Discourse Interface. Oxford Surveys in Syntax and Morphology, OUP, Oxford.

Hickmann, M., Hendriks, H., Roland, F., Liang, J., 1996. The marking of new information in children’s narratives: A comparison of English, French, German and Mandarin Chinese. Journal of Child Language 23, 591–619.

Modyanova, N., Wexler, K., 2007. Semantic and pragmatic language development: Children know ‘that’ better. In: Belikova, A., Meroni, L., Umeda, M. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2nd Conference on Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition North America (GALANA). Cascadilla Proceedings Project, Somerville, MA, pp. 297–308.

O’Neill, D., 1996. Two-year-old children’s sensitivity to a parent’s knowledge state when making requests. Child Development 67, 659–677.

Schaefer, R., de Villiers, J., 2000. Imagining articles: What a and the can tell us about the emergence of DP. In: Howell, S. C., Fish, S., Keith-Lucas, T. (Eds.), Proceedings of BUCLD 24. Cascadilla Press, Sommerville, MA, pp. 609–620.

Schaeffer, J., Matthewson, L., 2005. Grammar and pragmatics in the acquisition of article systems. Natural language and Linguistic Theory 23, 53–101.

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