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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Who are you talking about? : the development of reference in Cantonese-speaking children with and without specific language impairment Wong, Mei Yin Anita


Cantonese-speaking children's reference to story characters was examined in three different functions: Maintenance of a known character, Introduction of a second new character, and Reintroduction of a known character. The notion of discourse representation, specified in terms of Levelt's (1989L).knowledge components and attentional states, was used as the framework for understanding presupposition as cognitive process. Typically developing children aged 3, 5, 7 and 12 years and a group of 5-year-olds with specific language impairment, told 16 stories based on picture sequences. A child's referential act was judged to be adequate when a naive 'listener' could successfully identify the character. All of the children were the most referentially adequate with Maintenance, less adequate with Introduction, and least adequate with Reintroduction. The 12- and 7-yearolds approached ceiling on all three functions, indicating accurate presupposition of the listener's knowledge of, and attention state towards, the story characters, as well as knowledge of the referring expressions. The 5-year-olds Maintained and Introduced characters clearly. They had the required expressions and made accurate presuppositions about the listener's knowledge. However, despite knowledge of the required expressions, they only showed partial success on Reintroduction, indicating difficulties in presupposing the listener's relative attentional state towards the character. The 3-year-olds were only referentially adequate on Maintenance. Despite knowledge of the required expressions, they appeared to ignore the listener's knowledge state. Generally, children were more successful when Introducing or Reintroducing a character late rather than early in the discourse, suggesting that the salience of a new or returning character was a stronger determinant than the relative complexity of the discourse representation. Cantonese-speaking children with SLI showed the same effects of referential function and discourse position. Some were at the same developmental level as their language-matched peers and some as their age-matched peers. However, they showed more difficulty with the required referring expressions than either group of children at the same levels. Future challenges would be to determine if children with SLI have problems with linguistic forms only, or with presuppositional skills as well.

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