LINGUIST List 14.1368

Tue May 13 2003

Review: Psycholinguistics: Hickmann (2002)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Simin Karimi at


  1. Zouhair Maalej, Children's Discourse: Person, Space and Time Across Languages

Message 1: Children's Discourse: Person, Space and Time Across Languages

Date: Mon, 12 May 2003 23:19:32 +0000
From: Zouhair Maalej <>
Subject: Children's Discourse: Person, Space and Time Across Languages

Hickmann, Maya (2002) Children's Discourse: Person, Space and Time
Across Languages, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Studies in
Linguistics 98.

Announced at

Zouhair Maalej, 
Department of English, University of Manouba-Tunis, Tunisia


The book is a monograph dealing with developmental psycholinguistics,
most specifically the first language acquisition of entities, space
and time, with special reference to structural/functional and
language- specific/universal features in a cross-linguistic
perspective through children's narratives in French, English, German,
and Mandarin Chinese. The book is made up of two parts, including nine
chapters, plus introduction and conclusion. The first part is a review
of the relevant literature, while the second part is the core
contribution of the author to children's discourse skills.


Theoretical Issues (pp. 21-48)

Hickmann reviews some of the controversies over the innateness
hypothesis vs. constructivist approach, form vs. function, competence
vs. performance, continuity vs. discontinuity, etc. This is followed
by functional approaches to language, whereby particular reference is
made to multifunctionality of language and context- dependency as
fundamental properties of language. The chapter closes with a view of
discourse cohesion as a way of marking information status and
grounding at the sentence and discourse levels.

Cross-linguistic Invariants and Variations (pp. 49-85)

This chapter treats the universal and language-specific features of
language acquisition. These are captured along Chomsky's principles
and parameters. One important principle active with denoting entities
is pronominalization. In the spatial domain, the figure-ground
principle is highlighted, together with dynamic and static.
Cross-linguistically, what is variable is the extent to which
particular spatial expressions are used. Concerning time, temporal
expressions are found to provide the anchorage of events in discourse,
with variations on the anchorage depending on various languages
providing tenses that serve as backgrounds for other foregrounded
ones. Some of the features of particular languages are said to
function as facilitators/impediments of the rate of acquisition.

Coherence and Cohesion in Discourse Development (pp. 86- 107)

A background for coherence and cohesion is sought in scripts and
stories which children are said to developmentally acquire and
construct as they grow older. Hickmann points to the need of
developmental studies showing how coherence and cohesion interact to
contribute to the child's narrative skills.

Children's Marking of Information Status: Referring Expressions and
Clause Structure (pp. 108-140)

Hickmann distinguishes syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic studies of
referring expressions among children, arguing that syntactic
approaches ignore maturational cognitive factors and pragmatic
contexts (p. 117). However, the criticism addressed to functional
approaches is lack of attention paid to the formal mechanisms behind
discourse organization and comprehension by children (p. 132). In
contrast to referring expressions, Hickmann notices that little is
known about clause structure in children's discourse.

The Acquisition of Spatial and Temporal-aspectual Devices
(pp. 141-171)

Research on spatial cognition has been shown to mark a passage from a
uniform universal perspective to a more language-specific perspective,
or a combination of both. Cross-linguistic variations show variable
performances with tense-aspectual uses and discourse connectivity,
which weakens the universal cognitive development (known as the
defective tense hypothesis) as the only hypothesis to explain the
acquisition of spatial and temporal-aspectual devices, thus reviving
Whorf's linguistic relativity hypothesis.


Methodological Issues (pp. 175-193)

This chapter points to the fact that it is the methodological pitfalls
in the developmental literature that are responsible for the
divergent/contradictory claims about the use by children of referring,
temporal, and spatial expressions. Hickmann identifies responsible
culprits for these inconsistencies as being the methodologies of data
collection (longitudinal and/or cross-sectional), the inconsistent
control of certain variables related to discourse types (conversation,
narration, etc.), the adult intervention (different elicitation
methods), the nature (length, density, etc.) and mode (picture, film,
reading, etc.) of presentation of the material for children, and the
inadequate background conditions (prior knowledge by the child of the
narrated/shown material and assumptions about child's background
knowledge). The second part of the chapter is, however, devoted to the
current study's design and rationale, which are managed so that the
failings that led to the controversial and contradictory results
reviewed by the author would not repeat themselves.

Animate Entities (pp. 194-239)

Hickmann finds that many factors determine the acquisition of
information marking: obligatoriness affects newness; functional
complexity affects timing and course of acquisition; word order is
affected by syntactic and semantic sentence-internal factors; the form
and position of referring expressions is affected by discourse
pragmatic factors. In sum, language-specificity seems to result in
cross-linguistic differences at the sentence and discourse levels.

Space (pp. 240-281)

It is found that French almost stands apart from German, English, and
Chinese in terms of static situations/motion, whereby responsibility
for this is assigned to the difference between verb-framed languages
(which are path- oriented, expressing manner of motion peripherally)
versus satellite-framed languages (which conflate motion and manner of
motion in the verb, with path taken care of by satellites such as
prepositions and adverbs). This results in distributed spatial
information across discourse in French, and compact packaging of
information in the other languages. In terms of how events are
anchored in space, Hickmann finds that, in spite of cross-linguistic
differences (e.g., in the use of dynamic vs. static events), the
management of space seems to follow the same path in all the languages
studied, suggesting a more salient universal role for spatial
cognition in space anchorage. The introduction of space is done more
with animate definite entities than with inanimate indefinite ones
across languages and age groups.

Time (pp. 262-317)

Hickmann notes three important landmarks in the acquisition of
temporal-aspectual markings: (i) a correlation between boundedness and
perfectivity markings, (ii) a later correlation between
temporal-aspectual shifts and events in discourse, and (iii) an even
later development in the use of connectives and adverbials to mark
intrasentential connection and discourse coherence. Chinese children,
however, are said to show (iii) earlier than the rest, which can be
attributed to the ease afforded by the absence of morphology in
Chinese. Hickmann points that, despite the cross-linguistic
differences, her results are in line with functional approaches to
verbal morphology, with pragmatics playing a major role.

Conclusions (pp. 318-342)

Apart from the roundup of her results, Hickmann reviews the
implications of her findings. She finds in relation to children's
discourse that the timing is longer and the rhythm of acquisition is
slower than was attested by many previous studies of language
acquisition. In relation to determinants, she stresses the role of
sentence and discourse factors, whereby sentence factors are both
syntactic and semantic, while discourse factors are
pragmatic. Concerning the universal versus language- specific aspects
of acquisition, Hickmann points to the role of both aspects, with the
language-specific aspects impacting acquisition to varying degrees
depending on the language being acquired.


The book under review is a very important landmark in developmental
research on children's discourse. Both the first part of it, which
reviews existing theories and addresses necessary criticisms to them
owing to lack of psychological foundations of some of their proposals,
and the second part, in which Hickmann offers her own contribution to
this field, converge to insist on (i) allowing for cognitive and
functional pragmatic factors to explain formal features, and (ii)
embracing what is universal and what is language-specific in
children's discourse. The book displays an incredible amount of
formal- functional intertextual material, so far hard to find united
within the pages of a single book. In this sense, Hickmann's book is a
call for an enlightened hyphenation, rather than a blind
dichotomization, of formal-functional approaches to language in
general and to children's discourse in particular.

Owing to the empirical nature of this study, the implications of
Hickmann's findings are hugely important in straightening things up in
language acquisition research. The finding about the differences she
notes about the timing and rhythm of acquisition is all the more
important that, beyond its universal cognitive dimension, it seems to
be also affected by the nature of the language being acquired. This is
a regulatory valve for the regularity claim of language
acquisition. The projection of the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic
levels over the sentential and discourse levels battles not only for a
formal-functional, as just pointed out, but also a sentence-discourse
perspective on language acquisition. The universal aspect of
acquisition, as deriving from the insights of formal linguistics view
of language acquisition device as innate, is both questioned by and
enmeshed with language-specific aspects, which evokes the revival of
the linguistic relativity hypothesis.

To end this review, a couple of miscellaneous remarks will be made:

(i) Hickmann (p. 38) mentions that Halliday's medial function of
language is ''the social function.'' For accuracy's sake, although it
is essentially social, Halliday (1973: 143) calls it the
''interpersonal'' function, not the social function.

(ii) Discussing information status, Hickmann (p. 59) uses a simple
Given/New configuration, which does not seem to account for the full
range of the cognitive statuses of referring expressions in
discourse. Attention should be drawn to a more explanatory model
developed by Gundel et al (1993: 275), who propose that referring
expressions are better grounded in the ''assumed cognitive status of
the referent, i.e. on assumptions that a cooperative speaker can
reasonably make regarding the addressee's knowledge and attention
state in the particular context in which the expression is used.''
They call their model THE GIVENNESS HIERARCHY: in focus {it} >
activated {that, this, this N} > familiar {that N} > uniquely
identifiable {the N} > referential {indefinite this N} > type
identifiable {a N}. Gundel et al (1993: 276) argue that the six
cognitive statuses are ''implicationally related (by definition), such
that each status entails (and is therefore included by) all lower
statuses, but not vice versa.'' For instance, ''the definite article
the signals 'you can identify this', the demonstrative determiner that
signals 'you are familiar with it, and therefore you can identify it',
and so on.''

(iii) In her distinction between satellite and verb-framed languages,
Hickmann (p. 71) classifies French as a verb- framed language, i.e., a
language that is path-oriented. For instance, French can only say,
''Le b�b� entre dans la cuisine en marchant/courant/rampant'' (The
baby enters in the kitchen by walking/running/crawling), while English
can say this as ''The baby walked/ran/crawled into the kitchen.''
Although this is the prototypical practice in French, my bilingual
education taught me that, just like English, French can conflate
motion and manner of motion as in ''Le b�b� marche/court/rampe vers
la cuisine'' (The baby walks/runs/crawls towards the kitchen), where
the verb packages both motion and manner of motion, with path or
directionality taken care of by the preposition ''vers'' (towards). A
compound preposition in French that allows a similar conflation of
motion and manner is de . � (from . to). Hickmann herself (p. 277)
mentions a set of verbs (e.g., s'envoler (to fly) and grimper (to
climb up)), which, though restricted, conflate all of motion, path of
motion, and manner of motion. The behavior of French in relation to
motion and manner of motion seems to be sensitive to whether space is
conceptualized as a CONTAINER, or as an OBJECT/LOCATION/DESTINATION.

The foregoing remarks are not meant to detract in any way from the
value of the book, which is an invaluable source of information on
children's discourse (and other related matters) for both students and
specialists alike.


Gundel, Jeanette, Nancy Hedberg & Ron Zacharski (1993). Cognitive
status and the form of referring expressions in discourse. Language,
69: 2, 274-307.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1973). Language structure and language function. In
J. Lyons (ed.), New Horizons in Linguistics. Baltimore: Penguin
Books, pp. 140-165. 


The reviewer is an assistant professor of linguistics. His interests
include cognitive linguistics, metaphor, cognitive pragmatics,
psycholinguistics, critical discourse analysis, etc. He has been
awarded a senior Fulbright research scholarship that he spent at the
department of linguistics, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque
(2002- 2003) in writing a book on cognitive metaphor, with special
reference to Arabic.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue