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Experimental evidence for preschoolers’ mastery of topics

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Discourse competence is the linguistic knowledge that enables the adequate encoding of information in a given context, reflecting what the speaker assumes the hearer to know or believe. In first language acquisition research, lack of discourse competence is often cited as the source of target-deviant production affecting various aspects of grammar (see e.g. Chien and Wexler 1991, Schaeffer and Matthewson 2005), but little is known of the actual competence of children in this area.

This research is based on new, theoretically motivated diagnostics to identify evidence of early discourse competence. In particular, it aims to demonstrate that preschool children master the discourse notion of topic, in spite of difficulties in evaluating the salience requirement necessary for its adequate encoding.

I present results from an elicitation task conducted on 45 monolingual children acquiring French as their L1 (between 2;6 and 5;6 years of age). Each child was prompted to produce 27 utterances, either in a context forcing a topic interpretation of the target referent, or in a context forcing a focus interpretation. In Spoken French, this requires that the target referent be obligatorily dislocated in the former condition, but obligatorily not in the latter.

This experiment provides overwhelming evidence for the mastery of the discourse/pragmatic notion of topic by preschool children, even in the youngest age group. In the discussion, I try to tease apart the linguistic from cognitive underpinnings of target-like usage, based on a Theory of Mind test performed on the same children.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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