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Review of  Children's Discourse

Reviewer: Zouhair Maalej
Book Title: Children's Discourse
Book Author: Maya Hickmann
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 14.1368

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Date: Sun, 11 May 2003 14:48:23 -0700
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.

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

Coherence and Cohesion in Discourse Development (pp. 86-

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

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


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

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

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

(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 bébé 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
bébé 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 . à (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

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.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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.

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