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 ital-olandesi. MA thesis: Utrecht.
In accordance with TalkBank rules, any use of data from this corpus must be accompanied by the above reference.
This is a study of picture descriptions by 20 children in the age range of 4-13 years. Half of the children were Italian-Dutch bilinguals and the other 10 were monolinguals (5 Dutch monolinguals and 5 Italian monolinguals). The study is reported in an MA thesis at the University of Utrecht entitled “Lo sviluppo dell’acquizione del soggetto nei bambini bilingui ital-olandesi.”
This research is based on the assumption that bilingual children do 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 works also 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. Also in adult Italian there is this option, 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 the Italian case. In adult Italian there is just one structural analysis when it comes to omit the subject: when the subject contains old information it has to be omitted, wherever the element may be 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. Italian/ Dutch bilinguals should produce more null subjects than their monolingual peers as bilinguals would over generalize 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 used a storybook made out of pictures only. There are four different stories, all made out of about ten pictures. The children were asked to tell the story by looking at the pictures. The book was made in such a way that each two following pictures were showed at once. This to create a situation in which the child would be confronted with a situation in which it had to deal with the pragmatic rules considering subject omission. When on the first picture, for example, the rabbit was introduced for the first time (building a tower from bricks), on the second picture the same rabbit was shown again (now he finished the tower). In this specific situation the pragmatic rule of the Italian language would lead to the omission of the subject (the rabbit) in the second time it was mentioned. The child would say something like: “A rabbit is building a tower, and now (he) has finished.” In the Dutch case the child could use a weak pronoun for the second time the subject was mentioned, in order to express the fact that this subject did contain old information. The front page of every story does contain all the characters, to be sure that the children did distinguish them well. This could have influenced, though, there judgment on what was old information. Every recording session there were three persons only: two children (subjects) and me. One child did tell the story to the other child and to me, while the other child was only listening. For the second child I did use another 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). The recordings were made using a Minidisc recorder and transcribed by the researcher.
Although the transcription is not phonetic, there is an attempt to capture some of the features of the Roman dialect spoken by the children. All the children’s names are replaced by pseudonyms. It is possible to see if the child is a boy or a girl though. 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 bilingual children and the monolingual Italian children are all living in Rome (with a few exceptions for the monolingual Italian children) and they do produce some specific dialectal features in their production. This can be found in the use of some specific words or different syntactic structures. The example that occurs the most 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 form ‘Ci stanno conigli’. They use another verb (to stand instead of to be). The Dutch monolingual children are all living in Bilthoven and speak standard Dutch.
Funding was obtained through a scholarship of the Royal Dutch Institute in Rome.