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Young children’s speech act comprehension : the role of linguistic and contextual information Wakefield, P. Jane


This study addresses the question of the necessity of propositional content in children's comprehension of speech acts. In investigating this aspect of communicative competence in children the study considered the relative importance of age (3, 4), context (Requests, Questions, and Offers), and quantity of propositional content. Two factorial experiments were conducted in which 54 three and four-year-old children were administered a discrimination task, where, through puppet play, contexts were constructed for utterances in order to simulate particular speech acts. Judgments of the illocutionary force of such contexts were elicited by having children decide which one of two paraphrased utterances matched the stimulus utterance. Quantity of linguistic information in the stimulus presentations was progressively reduced. While younger children's performance was relatively unaffected by the reduction of linguistic information, the older children's discrimination of speech acts was relatively adversely affected. These findings were supported by additional data from an elicited imitation task and spontaneous responses. A developmental shift is proposed, from more direct context-dependent strategies of speech act processing to a later more linear or text-dependent approach linked to developing linguistic awareness.

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