LINGUIST List 32.1801

Mon May 24 2021

Diss: Language Acquisition: Morgane Jourdain: '' A quantitative and qualitative corpus study of the acquisition of topic constructions in child French''

Editor for this issue: Sarah Robinson <>

Date: 03-Nov-2020
From: Morgane Jourdain <>
Subject: A quantitative and qualitative corpus study of the acquisition of topic constructions in child French
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Institution: Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
Program: PhD in Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2020

Author: Morgane Jourdain

Dissertation Title: A quantitative and qualitative corpus study of the acquisition of topic constructions in child French

Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition

Dissertation Director:
Emmanuelle Canut
Karen Lahousse
Cécile De Cat

Dissertation Abstract:

In my research, I investigated the interaction between information structure (IS) and syntax in child French, focusing on the acquisition of topic. My main goal is to determine whether the relational and referential dimensions of IS are both present from the beginning of language acquisition. This study is based on a corpus analysis of left (1) and right (2) dislocations (LD and RD) produced by 99 children between age 1,5 and 7.

(1) Les chats ils font miaou. ‘Cats meow.’ (Flavie, corpus TCOF, 6;1.4)
(2) Où il est le papillon? ‘Where’s the butterfly?’ (Marie, corpus Lyon, 2;1.13)
The main contributions of this project to the field are the following:
Syntax: We show that children start producing dislocations as soon as they are able to produce multiword utterances. As a result, their first dislocation attempts often lack items that are compulsory in adult speech, such as verbs ‎(3).
(3) Là ça. ‘There that.’ (Anaïs, corpus Lyon, 1;11.26)

Their productions become adult-like before age 3. At first, children mostly dislocate subjects. Younger children also produce more dislocated demonstrative pronouns than older children, who produce more lexical NPs.

Information structure: The children from our corpora produce dislocations with adult-like referential and relational information structure: they only produce dislocated constituents that correspond to the aboutness topic of the sentence (following the definitions of Lambrecht, 1994, and Reinhart, 1981). These children also only select referents which are somehow accessible in the discourse or physical context as topics.

Differences between LD and RD: In adult French, LD and RD exhibit different properties: LD can express contrastive topics, and topic shift. RD is more frequently used for topic maintenance, and is more frequent than LD for interrogative sentences. Using a logistic regression model, we show that from age 2, children follow adult-like patterns in their productions of LD and RD.
Differences between dislocated and non-dislocated subjects: I compare the IS properties of dislocated and non-dislocated subjects produced by a subset of the children of our corpora. For lexical NPs, children dislocate the subject if it is the topic of the sentence, but do not dislocate it if it belongs to the focus of the sentence. As for pronouns, children dislocate them if they convey less accessible referents (such as situationally given) or if they express a contrastive topic. We also compare the frequency of dislocation in two registers, conversation and narration, and show that from age 4, children produce fewer dislocations in narration than in conversation.
The acquisition of the concept of topic: I investigated the degree of lexical and semantic productivity of dislocations in early child speech. Under the usage-based approach, I argue that children’s first dislocation attempts are based on item-based schemas, which contain fixed lexical items, and which have more context-specific functions than topic-marking. I hypothesize that these early concrete functions cluster and form the topic-marking function through analogy.

Page Updated: 24-May-2021