She refers therefore she is: Morphosyntax and pragmatics in referential communication


Post written by Aylin C. Küntay, Koç University, Istanbul & Utrecht University, Utrecht

Based on an upcoming keynote talk to be given at IASCL 2014 this week (14th – 18th July, Amsterdam)

Referential communication is talking about things and people, an essential ability upon which many human communicative interactions build. To be able to communicate effectively, speakers and addressees should concur on what they are talking about. Although this sounds trivial, even adults sometimes have trouble in pinpointing exactly what their interlocutor has in mind, or might fail to express their referential intentions in the clearest way.

The evidence we have about children’s referential abilities is mixed. An 18-month-old can be quite effective in making us pick the right diaper with the desired picture out from a heap of clean diapers. A 5-year-old, on the other hand, might lose us among the many characters he introduces in his retelling of a movie. Many factors distinguish the situation of the diaper-picker from the film-narrator. Yet in our methodological and analytical frameworks, we forget that the act of referential behavior is embedded in certain contexts and geared towards a particular type of interactive experience. My talk will focus on the contextual conditions that render toddlers and preschoolers referentially (in)effective.

For my keynote talk in the conference organized by the IASCL in 2014 to take place in Amsterdam, I will focus on the contributions interactive contexts, interactive goals, and interactive partners make to the development of referential communication. I will introduce data from narrative interactions and conversational discourse of children in addition to experimental studies.

These studies show how naturalistic interactions with others and their feedback impact (monolingual) children’s development of referential communication. Infants are presented by their caregivers with richly textured patterns of referential sets, where the referent remains constant across extended stretches of discourse. This constancy is accompanied by integration of nonverbal cues such as gestures, gazes, and touches in addition to linguistic expansions and reductions regarding the referent.

Preschool children display morphosyntactically more sophisticated and referentially clearer structures when they build their discourse structures conversationally rather than via being prompted by picturebooks, when they assume more audience-oriented interactive goals, and when they are trained on referential effectiveness. In brief, children need to learn to form a variety of (often language-specific) expressive devices in addition to learning how to use these devices for particular interactive contexts and discourse functions.

Discover more about the IASCL 2014 here


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