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The relationship between mothers’ pronominal modifications and children’s acquisition of pronominal reference Fee, E. Jane

Abstract

This study investigated the pronominal modifications used by mothers when addressing their young children and their children's acquisition of pronominal reference. The questions examined were: (a) how extensively do mothers replace conventional English pronouns with nouns or unconventional pronouns when speaking to their children? (b) are there individual differences in the degree to which conventional pronouns are avoided? (c) what are the reference systems used by young children? and (d) do the systems of reference used by mothers influence their children's language in any way? Speech samples from eight children and their mothers were collected in two one-half hour sessions, separated by an interval of from three and one-half to seven months. At the time of the first session, four children were in Stage I (Brown 1973) and four were in early Stage II. By the second session the first four children had progressed to Stage II and the others to Stage III. Each session contained three situations, each approximately ten minutes in length. In both sessions ten minutes was spent dressing the child and ten minutes reading a book. In addition, the first session contained a period of free-play and the second a discussion of a set of photographs of the mother and child. Three types of analyses were performed. The first examined the mothers' use and avoidance of personal pronouns at Session 1, and the children's systems of nominal and pronominal reference at Session 2. The second was a correlational analysis between the measures of maternal speech at Session 1 and child speech at Session 2. Finally, differences between the individual reference systems of the mothers and children were examined. The results showed that two types of substitution processes replacing conventional pronouns could be found in the mothers' speech. The most common process, called 'objectification', was the use of proper nouns or kinship terms for first or second person pronouns. First person plural pronouns or third person pronouns were also used as replacements for first or second person pronouns, although less frequently. When using conventional pronouns, mothers used the second person more often than the first, and subjective case pronouns more often than objectives or possessives. The use of second person reference decreased as the age of the child increased. Children at Stage II used nominal and pronominal reference to approximately the same extent, but by the time Stage III was reached pronominal reference was used almost five times more often than nominal reference. Children were sensitive to the reference systems used by their mothers. Their use of individual pronouns changed over time as their mothers' use of the same forms changed. It was also found that children's use of nominal reference was positively related to the mothers* use of objectification at an earlier time. The more objectifications used by a mother, the slower her child would be to encode referents in a pronominal mode only. Two explanations of the interrelatedness of maternal and child reference systems are possible. Following the explanation given by Newport, Gleitman and Gleitman (l977) the maternal speech may have had an effect on children's acquisition of personal reference because the latter is a language-specific aspect of speech. Alternatively, it may be that children are sensitive to only those aspects of the input language, such as mother's reference systems, which vary from speaker to speaker.

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