Antje van Oosten
Italian Language & Culture
University of Utrecht
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van Oosten, A. (2005). Lo sviluppo dell’acquizione del soggetto nei bambini bilingui italo-olandesi. MA thesis: Utrecht University.
In accordance with TalkBank rules, any use of data from this corpus must be accompanied by the above reference.
This corpus contains transcriptions of picture descriptions by 20 children in the age range of 4-13 years. 10 bilingual children (Italian-Dutch, living in Rome, Italy) and 10 monolingual children (6 Dutch monolinguals, living in The Netherlands and 4 Italian monolinguals, living in Italy). The study is reported in an MA thesis at the University of Utrecht entitled “Lo sviluppo dell’acquisizione del soggetto nei bambini bilingui italo-olandesi.”
This research is based on the assumption that bilingual children develop two separate linguistic systems from very early on (Genesee 1989, among others). However, Müller & Hulk (2001)’s study on object omission in a series of Germanic-Romance language pairs provides evidence for cross-linguistic influence in the case of simultaneous acquisition of two languages. According to Müller & Hulk, cross-linguistic influence occurs when language A allows for more than one structural analysis (from the perspective of the child), language B contains positive evidence for one of these analyses, and the analysis that both languages share is compatible with a universal pragmatic strategy. Further they argue that phenomena of cross-linguistic influence occur at the interface between syntax and pragmatics. The mapping of universal pragmatic strategies into language specific rules is a hard task for the bilingual child who has to cope with two different language systems. Müller & Hulk’s hypothesis is that when bilingual children are confronted with two possible analyses, they choose the option that is favored by both languages.
This research seeks to determine if Müller & Hulk (2001)’s hypothesis also works for other linguistic phenomena that occur at the interface between syntax and pragmatics, such as, for instance, subject acquisition. In the case of subject acquisition there is the possibility in early Dutch to drop the subject when it contains old information. In adult Italian there is this option as well, due to the same pragmatic rule. However, in early Dutch the omission of the subject is constrained by the position of the specifier of the root, while there is no such constraint in Italian. In adult Italian there is just one structural analysis when it comes to omitting the subject: when the subject contains old information, it has to be omitted. Independently from where the element is located inside the phrase structure. If this analysis is correct, we predict that Italian grammar may influence Dutch grammar, for the reason that the bilingual child will choose the analysis that is favored by both languages. In other words: Italian/ Dutch bilinguals are expected to produce more null subjects than their monolingual peers as bilinguals would overgeneralize the pragmatic rule that is common to both languages. In this study, bilingual children did produce significantly more null subjects in their Dutch corpus than their monolingual Dutch peers did. Müller & Hulk (2001) predict this influence to arise before the C-system is completed. However, the subjects of my research had completed the acquisition of their C-system, as we can see from their use of embedded structures and WH-phrases.
For this research I created a picture book (without any text). There are four different stories, containing about ten pictures each. The children are asked to tell a story by looking at the pictures. The book is made in such a way that two following pictures are presented at once. In order to create a setting in which the child is confronted with a situation in which it has to deal with the pragmatic rules considering subject omission.
E.g. on the first picture a rabbit is introduced for the first time (building a tower from bricks). On the second picture the same rabbit is shown again (now he finished the tower). In this case the pragmatic rule for Italian is omission of the subject (the rabbit) in the second occurrence. An Italian (monolingual) child would say something like: “A rabbit is building a tower, and now (he) has finished.” A Dutch (monolingual) child would not omit the subject but could use a weak pronoun for the second occurrence of the rabbit, in order to express the fact that this subject contains old information. The front page of every story contains all the characters of the story, in order to ensure that the children distinguish them well. This could influence their judgement on what they considered old information (but this didn't seem to have influenced the results of this research).
Every recording session there were three persons only: two children (the subjects) and me. One child would tell the story to the other child and to me, while the other child was only listening. For the second child I used a different story. I collected the data of 10 bilingual children (Dutch/ Italian) and 10 monolingual children (4 Italian children and 6 Dutch children), all in the age range from 4;3.1 to 13:4.5. The monolingual children of the control group were recorded in their own homes (the Italian monolingual children) or at their school (the Dutch monolingual children). All the children’s names are replaced by pseudonyms. For the Italian pseudonyms counts that if a name ends with an ‘o’, this name is masculine. For the Dutch children, the following names are masculine: Sipke, Tiuri and Piak.
The recordings were made using a Minidisc recorder, transcribed and analyzed by me (Antje van Oosten).
Although the transcription is not phonetic, there is an attempt to capture some of the features of the Roman dialect spoken by the children.
The bilingual children and the monolingual Italian children are all located in Rome (with a few exceptions for the monolingual Italian children) and they all include dialectal features in their Italian production. Both in their vocabulary and on a structural level. The most common example throughout the data is the following: in standard Italian the ‘correct’ form for the sentence ‘there are rabbits’ is ‘Ci sono conigli’, whereas in Rome they will use the construction ‘Ci stanno conigli’. They use another verb (to stand instead of to be). The Dutch monolingual children are all living in Bilthoven (The Netherlands) and they speak standard Dutch.
Please note that the bilingual children (10 in total) are listed twice in the tables below. This is because of the difference in MLU between their Dutch and Italian production.
Funding was obtained through a scholarship of the Royal Dutch Institute in Rome.
With special thanks to Brian MacWhinney for creating and maintaining this database.