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Academic Paper

Title: Sensitivity to information status in discourse: Gesture precedes speech in unbalanced bilinguals
Author: Wing-Chee So
Institution: Chinese University of Hong Kong
Author: Jia-Yi Lim
Institution: National University of Singapore
Author: Seok-Hui Tan
Institution: National University of Singapore
Linguistic Field: Discourse Analysis; Language Acquisition
Subject Language: English
Chinese, Mandarin
Abstract: This paper explores whether English–Mandarin bilingual children have mastered discourse skills and whether they show sensitivity to the discourse principle of information status of referents in their speech and gestures. We compare the speech and gestures produced by bilingual children to those produced by English- and Mandarin-speaking monolingual children. Six English-speaking and six Mandarin-speaking monolingual children, and nine English–Mandarin bilingual children (who were more dominant in English) were videotaped while interacting with their caregivers. Monolingual Mandarin- and English-speaking children produced null arguments and pronouns respectively to indicate given third-person referents, and nouns to indicate new third-person referents. They also gestured new third-person referents more often than given third-person referents. Thus, monolinguals’ speech and gestures followed the discourse principle. English–Mandarin bilingual children's speech and gestures also followed the discourse principle but only when they were speaking in English. They produced nouns more often to indicate given third-person referents than to indicate new third-person referents in Mandarin, indicating the violation of the discourse principle. It is interesting that they gestured new third-person referents more often than given third-person referents in Mandarin. Thus, our findings suggest that gesture precedes language development at discourse level in the less-dominant language in bilinguals.


This article appears IN Applied Psycholinguistics Vol. 35, Issue 1.

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