LINGUIST List 12.2448

Wed Oct 3 2001

Review: Nelson et al, Children's Lang, vol 10 (2nd rev)

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  1. Julia Gillen, Review: Nelson et al. Children's Language Vol. 10

Message 1: Review: Nelson et al. Children's Language Vol. 10

Date: Wed, 3 Oct 2001 08:10:42 EDT
From: Julia Gillen <>
Subject: Review: Nelson et al. Children's Language Vol. 10

Nelson, Keith, Ayhan Aksu-Ko�, and Carolyn E. Johnson, ed. (2001)
Children's Language, Volume 10: Developing Narrative and Discourse
Competencies. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, hardback ISBN 0-8058-3293-9,
xx+175pp, $45.00 ($22.50 prepaid).

Julia Gillen, Institute of Education and Centre for Human Communication,
Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

[Another review of this book can be found at --Eds.]

The chapters in this volume deal with discourse development, with an emphasis
on narrative, from ages 1 1/2 to 10, and ranging over seven languages. They
were developed from 7 of the 276 presentations of the Seventh International
Congress of the International Association for the Study of Child Language
(IASCL) in Istanbul, Turkey, in July 1996.

It is worth quoting the first paragraph of the editors' introduction, as a
succinct account of the aims and coverage of this book. This reviewer might
have preferred the insertion of a careful "some" as the seventh word:

"The chapters in this volume reflect recent directions of thinking in the
area of children's discourse development, with an emphasis on narratives.
Each contribution shows that empirical work in the last decade has focused on
finer distinctions regarding the effects on development of discourse genres,
different elicitation techniques and communicative contexts, literacy and
schooling and, of course, age, language, and culture. Each chapter addresses
issues concerning the interrelations between social, cognitive, and affective
capacities and processes in discourse. Finally, each raises theoretically
challenging questions regarding how and when new representations are
constructed to support new complexities in narrative and discourse more
generally. A comprehensive theoretical frame calls for a conceptualization of
discourse as an interactional space that promotes the development of higher
level metalinguistic, metarepresentational, and metapragmatic operations."
(p. xi)

After spending months with this book, this reviewer has decided that writing
at the end of this review an overall evaluation of the book, that is stating
to what degree the promises above are kept, would not be the most appropriate
response to this undoubtedly key text. The editors were enabled to leave the
audience unspecified, for this series is probably known to most child
language researchers, especially those with a strong psycholinguistic
background. The book, as the famous curate's egg, is 'good in parts'. I feel
that most readers would concur with that opinion, although which parts are
good and which less good, will not receive general agreement. Such judgements
will depend upon the reader's own theoretical and methodological assumptions.
Dealing with each chapter I endeavour to give information and evaluation that
is explicit in its subjectivity. I aim to enable the reader to judge not only
whether the field of investigation is relevant to their own interests, but
the nature of the underlying paradigm operationalized by the author. All
chapters are competent examples of their kind; no lack of painstaking work or
sloppiness in presentation is discernible, but judgements as to the ultimate
worth or value of the endeavour will, I believe, vary from reader to reader.
In my opinion, the area of child language research would benefit from greater
engagement with cognate areas in the social sciences that encourage
reflexivity: from the 'new sociology of childhood' (see e.g. Christensen and
James, 2000) to cultural psychology (e.g. Cole, 1996) to more general
re-examinations of interpretive research concerning children, (e.g. Hatch,
1995; Graue and Walsh, 1998). More specifically perhaps about the orientation
of the editors of this particular work, I might ask, ' why the emphasis on
different elicitation techniques? Why not more examination of spontaneous
language? Recognising that corpora lack contextual information, why not use
them for certain, limited and appropriate purposes?' But these are very
general arguments about the current condition of child language research,
beyond the scope of a book review. I shall turn to a careful perusal of the
chapters, endeavouring to keep the needs of different potential audiences in
mind as I do so.

Berman, Ruth A. "Setting the Narrative Scene: How Children Begin to Tell a
Story." (pp. 1 - 30).

This is not an examination of early developments in spontaneous narrative but
rather an examination of initial elements in narratives elicited from
children aged 3, 5 and 9 in two conditions: (a) with the aid of a picture
book; and (b) concerning personal experiences. These data are supplemented by
others gained from elicited stories by older children and adults. There are
detailed analyses against age, of setting strategies, story openers,
transition markers, tense and aspect shifts.

My sociocultural perspective - very different from the author's - leads me to
perceive an internal contradiction in Berman's approach.

To me, she seems to use an implied deficit model when examining children's
communicative competencies that could fruitfully be interrogated more deeply
than it is here. Berman appears to regard certain ways of introducing a
narrative as desirable and comments on "abilities" such as "the ability to
encode rhetorical alternations between background setting and foreground plot
elements." (p. 20) A developmental story is posited, with certain features -
e.g. the introduction of allusion to motivation - belonging to the more
mature speakers. At the same time Berman's broad investigations lead her,
wisely, from drawing back from assumptions that the most "developed"
strategies necessarily belong to adults. In a telling comment she reflects
"some adults tell stories as straight-forwardly informative and well
structured as school children's, while other adults devote as much as 50% of
their texts to background before proceeding to the onset of the action." (p.
25). This leads me to suspect that the "abilities" being examined might owe
more to results of schooled learning than to linguistic developments as such,
were it possible to extricate one from the other. Yet just because that
extrication is not possible (see Scribner and Cole, 1981; Vygotsky, 1987) one
should surely not disregard any consideration of the effect of schooling as
such upon changes in performance across time.

This is where my understanding departs most fundamentally from Berman's
making me, I freely admit, not the most intellectually empathetic reviewer of
this work. I would see the data she compiles as being situated, produced in
particular cultural and historical settings. Consideration of the data would
for me have to include review of the impact of the experimental condition
upon the child. Yet although Berman in her conclusion joins the editors in
claiming that attention to what they call "crosslinguistic and crosscultural
differences" is developing and should do further, I find this aim to be
wholly subjugated to a search for universals in linguistic development. The
search for uniformity by its nature obscures actual textures.

Berman's most revealing statement is as follows: "The bulk of the analyses
are from texts produced by speakers of Israeli Hebrew, on the assumption that
the language in which they are constructed has little effect on the quality
and narrative function of setting elements, when speakers share similar
literate, western-type cultural backgrounds of the kind considered here." If
this statement resonates with your own theoretical assumptions, you can skate
along with her and will find much to gain from her painstaking traces of
patterns. While welcoming the strong feature of this book overall that so
much data appears from languages other than English, I find the particularity
of situations in which language is used to require attention in any empirical

Bator�o, H.J. and Faria, I.H. "Representation of Movement in European
Portuguese: A Study of Children's Narratives." (pp. 31 - 54)

This work examines spatial reference in narratives by young children and
adults produced in elicitations relating to picture stories. Foci are
"analysis of nominal reference to determine the linguistic realizations of
figure and ground;" and "verbal reference to define relations between figure
and ground."

The study is given a broad reach through its location amid (a) recent
findings disturbing earlier proposals of universals in acquisition of
particular spatial cognitive understandings, as evidenced linguistically in
diverse languages, and (b) considerations of European Portuguese along a
hypothesised word order-morphological continuum of significance as to cues in
language acquisition.

Bator�eo and Faria begin with reference to their theoretical assumption that
"early acquisition is based not only on universal sensorimotor concepts but
also on the particular language being acquired." Their investigations
uncover considerable competencies. The paper is illuminating as a study of
children's cognitive, linguistic and social development and also a useful
contribution to the positioning of Portuguese.

Bamberg, M. "Why Young American English-Speaking Children Confuse Anger and
Sadness: A Study of Grammar in Practice" (pp. 55 - 72)

Bamberg examines the discursive practices of children aged 4 to 10 divided
into two groups by age, producing elicited anger and sadness accounts in
three conditions. The first is the genre of personal experience narrative,
the second a third person narration and the third a generalised explanation.
He seeks to comprehend why, for the younger children "anger" and "sadness"
could be confused, by means of a close examination of linguistic
constructions in the first person and explanatory genres.

The author endeavours (with some bravery, in my opinion), to bring discursive
psychology to bear upon child language research. Indeed at times he comes
close to a post-structuralist sensitivity to how "discourse worlds the
world." He faces a challenging task in having to set out his theoretical
assumptions in considerable detail before being "allowed" as it were to turn
to the data (c.f. discussion of Berman, above; Reeder, below).

The most fundamental points to his argument may be (overly-) simply stated
as follows:
(1) Language is not a transparent 'window' on human experience - including
events, and emotional states - but rather a rendering of them, necessarily
from a subjective point of view.
(2) Each of us learns language through being socialised into the cultural
practices of a community, including its discourses. Thus, just as with the
colour spectrum we appropriate ways of perceiving our physiological
responses. Our ways of feeling, in turn, are likely to be highly influenced
by learned interpretative predispositions.
(3) Language is dialogic. So, for example, even when talking to a researcher
we orient to our interlocutor. As Bamberg writes: "accounts of emotion
situations typically work up the aesthetics, judgements and morality involved
in such situations" (p. 59).

I find the discussion of data rather truncated but nevertheless successfully
constructed. It is a pity that Bamberg claims that ethnomethodological
(anthropological, perhaps?) work that stresses "the situatedness and cultural
contextualization of emotion talk... have mostly gone unheard" (p. 58) -
perhaps this is a reflection of the company he keeps! I agree that "the
approach presented in this chapter bears heavily on the notion of
development: In [sic] contrast to mapping out changes over time of children's
uses of words (semantic structures) or children's linguistic applications of
conceptual structures, and claiming that this is what develops, we see the
issue of development much more closely tied to the issue of participating in
(linguistic) practices. (p. 60; emphases removed)

Wigglesworth, G. and Stavans, A. "A Crosscultural Investigation of Australian
and Israeli Parents' Narrative Interactions with their Children" (pp. 73 - 91)

Sixty parent-child dyads in 6 groups were selected to read together a picture
book. Three groups were monolingual Hebrew speakers in Israel; 3 groups were
monolingual English speakers in Australia. Children were aged 3, 5 and 7.

Quantitative analyses of the data were conducted in order to compare the
"story-interaction styles". Results include: "at ages 3 and 5 there was
relatively even matching of parent-child exchanges but at 7 children made
substantially more contributions than those solicited." There were
differences in style between the two cultural groups at age 3 and 7 but not
at age 5. It is suggested this could be because age 5 marks the onset of
schooling and a particularly important period of cognitive development.

This study is valuable to those interested in child language development in
two particular aspects:
(a) as an example of painstaking quantitative analysis of data of dyadic
interactions by a considerable number of subjects;
(b) for those interested in this field of study conceived narrowly, the
literature review is very purposeful and well integrated and the study
clearly contributes to a specific current of work.

For this reviewer the absence of quotations from transcripts was a source of
some frustration. I also noted that the parents were "professional, middle
class" and wondered if this characteristic might be more significant than
"crosscultural" difference.

Nakamura, K. "The Acquisition of Polite Language by Japanese Children" (pp.
93 -112).

At the beginning of the paper the author offers a useful explanation of the
four interwoven types of 'keigo' or verbal politeness in Japanese that would
be of interest to sociolinguists not already familiar with this phenomenon.
Her research questions, relating to children's learning of 'keigo', are
contrasted with those of American investigations. Data, from a larger
project, were gathered from 30 children aged 1' to 6' during monthly visits
mostly over the course of a year. A wide range of activities was recorded,
with a particular effort made to facilitate pretence role-play. Findings are
illustrated by copious examples and supported by discussion.

This is a fascinating study, beautifully written. A complex subject for
English-speaking readers is elucidated skillfully. Data are contextualised and
supported by commentary regarding input. Modelling appears to be significant,
but also highly influential are the opportunities presented for the
development and practice of register in pretence play (see Andersen, 1990).
Also highly significant is the part played by routinised, fixed expressions.
In this study, culture is perceived not as a 'variable' but rather as
suffusing identity and language, inextricable from either. A particular merit
of this article is a rejection of any tendency to see a national group as
homogeneous in any linguistic practice, or any language as static rather than
constantly shifting. The paper is a model in many respect, not least in the
highly skilful and non-reductionist way of approaching complex issues.

Veneziano, E. "Interactional Processes in the Origins of the Explaining
Capacity" (pp. 113 - 141).

This paper concerns the analysis of oppositional moves in conversation as
occurring during longitudinal study of 2 mother-child dyads. The children are
French speaking, aged 1' !8" - 2' 7" and 1' 3" - 2' 2". The total duration of
recordings is about 16 hours for each child. The analysis of interactions
stemmed from a procedure, carefully explained, of identifying oppositions -
moves within which were carefully categorised and counted. Examples of
categories are illustrated by quotations.

This study is potentially of interest to any reader considering the
accomplishment of human intersubjectivity. These research subjects are very
young humans of course, and yet what stands out in the findings is their
agency. For example, "already with their early justifications, children seem
to forestall their mothers' objections rather than simply reacting to them."
(p. 138)

Reeder, K. "Children's Attributions of Pragmatic Intentions and Early
Literacy" (pp. 143 - 163)

The author's interests, as stated at the beginning of the chapter, are
admirably broad: "This chapter explores the links between underlying
pragmatic attribution ability, children's consciousness of that ability, and
the early development of narrative and expository-descriptive writing." (p.
143) This study, part of a larger research project, was conducted among 42
English-speaking children in Canada, aged from 6 to 9-years-old. The three
steps of data collection were as follows:

"1. Presentation of a puppet-based communication scenario.
"2. Administration of a brief interview designed to probe children's
attributions of the puppet-speaker's communicative intent and children's
understanding and identification of the source of their attributions.
"3. Administration of two writing tasks in two genres, narrative, and
expository-descriptive." (p. 149)

Recognising that this review necessarily skirts over the details of the
author's reasoning, it is probably most useful to quote him on his research

"The general form of the hypothesis being evaluated in each analysis was:
There should be a greater contrast between 7 and 8 years in quality,
quantity, and structural features in both the expository-descriptive and
narrative writing samples for the children demonstrating higher quality of
pragmatic attributions compared to children in the lower pragmatic
attribution group."

The problem this reviewer has with this study stems from its apparent
non-problematic equivalence of certain competencies in children, with their
actual performance in the specific task in the specific context it was
demanded. There is little or no consideration of the impact of the nature of
the research intervention on the performances. I agree with Graue and Walsh
(1998, p.78) that "interactions with participants, whether they are adults or
children, are framed in part by the tacit role enacted by the researcher."
Nor is there investigation of the cultural practices, most particularly
schooling, that might impact upon the children's performances. (Such
considerations, by the way, might do much to illuminate the different results
of earlier studies that appear to be puzzling the author in the literature
review.) Then, across the study, correlations are over-interpreted, almost
seen as necessarily causal. In reflecting upon this piece of work, I was
reminded of the cautionary words of Hatch, (1995, p. 138):

"We can learn something from such efforts, but what we learn is severely
limited by the distance between the operationalization of the construct,
which must be narrow to be technically defensible, and the construct as lived
by children, which is inherently complex. The examples provide measures of
something, but those somethings are tangential at best to children's
friendship, their abilities to interact socially, or their curiosity.
Researchers rarely mention the limitations of their efforts, and they talk as
though they have actually studied such complex entities as the phenomenon in
the examples."

Perhaps I am being unfair drawing upon Hatch's holistic, educational
perspective to bear upon a 'scientific' endeavour? Is children's language as
complex and rich a phenomenon as the aspects of their social existences at
the forefront of Hatch's mind as he wrote that piece? I believe that the
examples of children's language quoted by Reeder himself (pp. 152 - 154),
Nakamura in her chapter and elsewhere in this book, show that it is.


Andersen, Elaine Slosberg, (1990) Speaking with Style: the sociolinguistic
skills of children, London, Routledge.

Christensen, P. and James, A. (eds) (2000) Research with Children:
Perspectives and Practices. London: Falmer Press.

Cole, Michael (1996) Cultural Psychology: a once and future discipline.
Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Graue, M.E. and Walsh, D. (1998) Studying Children in Context: theories,
methods, and ethics. Thousand Oaks/London: Sage Publications.

Hatch, J.A. (ed.) (1995) Qualitative Research in Early Childhood Settings,
Westport, CT, Praeger.

Scribner, S. and Cole, M. (1981) The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987) 'Thinking and Speech' in Rieber, R. and Carton, A.
(eds) The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky. vol. I Problems of general
psychology, including the volume 'Thinking and speech' trans. N. Minick. New
York: Plenum Press.

Julia Gillen is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Education,
Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Lecturer, Centre for Human
Communication, Manchester Metropolitan University. She is currently
researching into the discourses of young children utilising information and
communication technologies, including the telephone.
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