Children’s discourse: Person, space and time across languages

Children’s discourse: Person, space and time across languages. By Maya Hickmann. (Cambridge studies in linguistics.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xviii, 392. ISBN 0521584418. $91.40 (Hb).

Reviewed by Mohammad Rasekh Mahand, Bu-Ali Sina University

Maya Hickmann tries to answer two main questions in her comparative study: What are the universal and specific features of language development in children? What are the different roles of structural and functional factors in this development? These questions are discussed with reference to three domains of child language: referring to entities, the representation of space, and the uses of temporal-aspectual markings. Narratives from English, French, German, and Chinese constitute the basis for H’s presentation. The book includes a complete review of different theoretical approaches to language acquisition.

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1, ‘Available theories and data’, begins with an introduction of the domains of child language and the aims of the book. Ch. 2 is a theoretical review of language acquisition, while Ch. 3 highlights some universal vs. language-specific properties of linguistic systems that bear on the developmental issues of language acquisition. In Ch. 4, H discusses the role of coherence and cohesion in the development of discourse, and in Ch. 5 she examines how children mark information status, with regard to both referring expressions and clause structure. H’s findings on referring expressions reach divergent conclusions about the rhythm, course, and determinants of acquisition. She also finds that the developmental evidence shows variable uses of clause structure across languages. Ch. 6 covers how spatial and temporal-aspectual markings are acquired. The literature on these two issues has two perspectives: one shows a universal tendency, and the other shows some crosslinguistic differences.

In Part 2, ‘A cross-linguistic analysis of children’s narratives’, H introduces the methodological issues (Ch. 7) and then devotes three chapters to animate entities, space, and time. In Ch. 8, ‘Animate entities’, H discusses the late mastery of obligatory newness markings in all languages. In addition, indefinite determiners are used systematically at around seven years old in Indo-European languages, postverbal positions at about ten in Chinese. In Ch. 9, ‘Space’, H reports her primary finding that ‘form variations in reference maintenance are massively determined by discourse factors’ (320) in all languages and all ages, despite crosslinguistic and developmental variations otherwise observed. The analysis also shows that there are differences with respect to the predicates that were used. French uses more static predicates compared to other languages, and the analysis of dynamic predicates shows wide differences in how narrators represent motion events across languages. Finally, in Ch. 10, ‘Time’, H analyzes temporal reference and shows that perfectivity and boundedness are related in all languages and that tense-aspect shifts were shown to take on discourse functions with increasing age.

Children’s discourse is a useful book for anyone interested in linguistics, psychology, and first language learning.