Skip to main content Accessibility help

The acquisition of pronouns by French children: A parallel study of production and comprehension



This study examines syntactic and morphological aspects of the production and comprehension of pronouns by 99 typically developing French-speaking children aged 3 years, 5 months to 6 years, 5 months. A fine structural analysis of subject, object, and reflexive clitics suggests that whereas the object clitic chain crosses the subject chain, the reflexive clitic chain is nested within it. We argue that this structural difference introduces differences in processing complexity, chain crossing being more complex than nesting. In support of this analysis, both production and comprehension experiments show that children have more difficulty with object than with reflexive clitics (with more omissions in production and more erroneous judgments in sentences involving Principle B in comprehension). Concerning the morphological aspect, French subject and object pronouns agree in gender with their referent. We report serious difficulties with pronoun gender both in production and comprehension in children around the age of 4 (with nearly 30% errors in production and chance level judgments in comprehension), which tend to disappear by age 6. The distribution of errors further suggests that the masculine gender is processed as the default value. These findings provide further insights into the relationship between comprehension and production in the acquisition process.


Corresponding author

ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE Pascal Zesiger, Faculté de Psychologie et des Sciences de l'Education, Université de Genève, 40 Boulevard du Pont d'Arve, Geneva 1205, Switzerland. E-mail:


Hide All
Avrutin, S., & Wexler, K. (1992). Development of Principle B in Russian: Coindexation at LF and coreference. Language Acquisition, 2, 259306.
Baauw, S., & Cuetos, F. (2003). The interpretation of pronouns in Spanish language acquisition and breakdown: Evidence for the “Principle B Delay” as a non-unitary phenomenon. Language Acquisition, 11, 219275.
Bates, E., & Devescovi, A. (1989). Cross-linguistic studies of sentence production. In MacWhinney, B. & Bates, E. (Eds.), The cross-linguistic study of sentence processing (pp. 225253). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bishop, D. V. M. (1983). The Test for Reception of Grammar. Manchester: University of Manchester, Age and Cognitive Performance Research Centre.
Bloom, P. (1990). Subjectless sentences in child language. Linguistic Inquiry, 21, 491504.
Bloom, P., Baars, A., Conway, L., & Nicol, J. (1994). Children's knowledge of binding and coreference. Evidence from spontaneous speech. Language, 70, 5371.
Bottari, P., Cipriani, P., & Chilosi, A. M. (1997). Dissociations in the acquisition of clitic pronouns in dysphasic children: A case study from Italian. Paper presented at the Conference on Syntax, Morphology and Phonology in Specific Language Impairment, Paris.
Burzio, L. (1986). Italian syntax. Dordrecht: Reiledd.
Cardinaletti, A., & Starke, M. (1999). The typology of structural deficiency: A case study of the three classes of pronouns. In Riemsdijk, H. v. (Ed.), Clitics in the languages of Europe. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Chien, Y.-C., & Wexler, K. (1990). Children's knowledge of locality conditions in binding as evidence for the modularity of syntax and pragmatics. Language Acquisition, 1, 225295.
Chillier, L., Arabatzi, M., Baranzini, L., Cronel-Ohayon, S., Deonna, T., Dubé, S., et al. (2001). The acquisition of French pronouns in normal children and in children with specific language impairment (SLI). Paper presented at Early Lexicon Acquisition (ELA), Lyon [CD].
Chomsky, N. (1981). Lectures in government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris Publications.
Clahsen, H. (1991). Constraints on parameter setting. Language Acquisition, 1, 361391.
Clark, E. (1985). The acquisition of Romance with special reference to French. In Slobin, D. I. (Ed.), The cross-linguistic study of language acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Cocchi, G. (1995). La selezione dell'ausiliare. Padua, Italy: Unipress.
Conroy, A., Takahashi, E., Lidz, J., & Phillips, C. (2010). Equal treatment for all antecedents: How children succeed with Principle B. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Coopmans, P., & Philip, W. (1995, April). The role of lexical feature acquisition in the development of pronominal anaphora. Paper presented at the Child Language Seminar, Bristol.
Corbett, G. G. (1991). Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cronel-Ohayon, S., Chillier, L., Arabatzi, M., Frauenfelder, U. H., Hamann, C., Zesiger, P., et al. (2010). Production and comprehension of pronominal clitics in French SLI. Unpublished manuscript.
Crysmann, B., & Müller, N. (2000). On the non-parallelism in the acquisition of reflexive and non-reflexive object clitics. In Powers, S. & Hamann, C. (Eds.), The acquisition of scrambling and cliticization. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
De Cat, C. (2005). French subject clitics are not agreement markers. Lingua, 108, 11951219.
Elbourne, P. (2005). On the acquisition of Principle B. Linguistic Inquiry, 36, 333365.
Fox, D., & Grodzinsky, Y. (1998). Children's passive: A view from the by-phrase. Linguistic Inquiry, 29, 311332.
Franck, J., Cronel-Ohayon, S., Chillier, L., Frauenfelder, U. H., Hamann, C., Rizzi, L., et al. (2004). Normal and pathological development of subject–verb agreement in speech production: A study on French children. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 17, 147180.
Friedemann, M. A. (1992). The underlying position of external arguments in French. Geneva Generative Papers, 2, 123144.
Gruter, T. (2006). Object clitics and null objects in the acquisition of French. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, McGill University.
Hamann, C. (2002). From syntax to discourse: Pronominal clitics, null subjects and infinitives in child language. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Hamann, C., Cronel-Ohayon, S., Dubé, S., Frauenfelder, U., Rizzi, L., Starke, M., et al. (2003). Aspects of grammatical development in young French children with SLI. Developmental Science, 6, 153160.
Hamann, C., Kowalski, O., & Philip, W. (1997). The French “delay of Principle B” effect. In Hughes, E., Hughes, M., & Greenhill, A. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 21st Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (Vol. 21, pp. 205219). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Hamann, C., Rizzi, L., & Frauenfelder, U. H. (1996). On the acquisition of subject and object clitics in French. In Clahsen, H. (Ed.), Generative perspectives on language acquisition. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.
Haverkort, M., & Weissenborn, J. (1991). Clitic and affix interaction in early Romance. Paper presented at the 16th Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD), Boston.
Hulk, A., & Tellier, C. (1999). Conflictual agreement in Romance nominals. In Authier, J. M., Bullock, B., & Reed, L. (Eds.), Formal perspectives in Romance clitics (pp. 179195). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Hyams, N., & Wexler, K. (1993). On the grammatical basis for null subjects in child language. Linguistic Inquiry, 24, 421459.
Jakubowicz, C. (1989). Maturation or invariance of universal grammar principles in language acquisition. Probus, 3, 283340.
Jakubowicz, C., Müller, N., Riemer, B., & Rigaut, C. (1997). The case of subject and object omission in French and German. In Hughes, E., Hughes, M., & Greenhill, A. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 21st Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (Vol. 21, pp. 331342). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Jakubowicz, C., & Nash, L. (in press). Why accusative clitics are avoided in normal and impaired language development. In Jakubowicz, C., Nash, L., & Wexler, K. (Eds.), Essays in syntax, morpholoy and phonology in SLI. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Jakubowicz, C., Nash, L., Rigaut, C., & Gérard, C.-L. (1998). Determiners and clitic pronouns in French-speaking children with SLI. Language Acquisition, 7, 113160.
Jakubowicz, C., & Rigaut, C. (2000). L'acquisition des clitiques nominatifs et des clitiques objets en Français. Canadian Journal of Linguistics, 45, 119157.
Jonas, D., & Bobalijk, J. (1993). Specs for subjects: The role of TP in Icelandic. MIT Working Papers in Linguistics, 18, 5998.
Kail, M. (1989). Cue validity, cue cost and processing types in sentence comprehension in French and Spanish. In MacWhinney, B. & Bates, E. (Eds.), The cross-linguistic study of sentence processing (pp. 77117). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kail, M., & Léveillé, M. (1977). Compréhension de la coréférence des pronoms personnels chez l'enfant et chez l'adulte. L'Année Psychologique, 77, 7994.
Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1979). A functional approach to child language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kayne, R. (1975). French syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Koster, J. (1993). Towards a new theory of anaphoric binding. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Groningen.
Kupisch, T., Müller, N., & Cantone, K. (2002). Gender in French and Italian. Lingue e Linguaggio, 1, 107149.
Lapointe, S. G. (1986). Markedness, the organisation of linguistic information in speech production, and language acquisition. In Eckman, F. R., Moravcsik, E. A., & Wirth, J. R. (Eds.), Markedness (pp. 219239). New York: Plenum Press.
Lecocq, P. (1996). L'E.CO.S.SE: Une épreuve de compréhension syntaxico-sémantique. Villeneuve d'Ascq, France: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion.
Levy, Y. (1988). On the early learning of formal grammatical systems: Evidence from studies of the acquisition of gender and countability. Journal of Child Language, 15, 179187.
McDaniel, D., & Maxfield, T.-L. (1992). Principle B and contrastive stress. Language Acquisition, 2, 337358.
McKee, C. (1992). A comparison of pronouns and anaphors in Italian and English acquisition. Language Acquisition, 2, 2154.
Meisel, J. (1992). The acquisition of verb placement. Functional categories and V2 phenomena in language acquisition. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
New, B., Pallier, C., Ferrand, L., & Matos, R. (2001). Une base de données lexicales du Français contemporain sur internet: LEXIQUE. L'Année Psychologique, 101, 447462.
Paradis, J., Crago, M., & Genesee, F. (2003). Object clitics as a clinical marker of SLI children in French: Evidence from French–English bilingual children. In Beachley, B., Brown, A., & Conlin, F. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 27th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (Vol. 27, pp. 638649). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Piérart, B., Comblain, A., Gregoire, J., Mousty, P., & Noël, M.-P. (2010). Isadyle: A battery of language tests. Unpublished manuscript.
Pierce, A. (1992). Language acquisition and syntactic theory. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Rasetti, L. (2003). Optional categories in early French syntax: A developmental study of root infinitives and null arguments. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Geneva.
Reinhart, T. (2004). Processing or pragmatics? Explaining the coreference delay. In Gibson, T. & Perlmutter, N. (Eds.), The processing and acquisition of reference. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Reuland, E. (2001). Primitives of binding. Linguistic Inquiry, 32, 439492.
Rizzi, L. (1986). On the status of subject clitics in Romance. In Jaeggli, O. & Silva-Corvalan, C. (Eds.), Studies in Romance linguistics. Dordrecht: Foris.
Rondal, J.-A., Espéret, E., Gombert, J. E., Thibaut, J.-P., & Comblain, A. (1999). Développement du langage oral. In Rondal, J.-A. & Seron, X. (Eds.), Troubles du langage: Bases théoriques, diagnostic et rééducation. Liège, Belgium: Mardaga.
Schall, R. (1991). Estimation in generalized linear models with random effects. Biometrika, 78, 719727.
Sigurjónsdóttir, S., & Hyams, N. (1992). Reflexivization and logophoricity: Evidence from the acquisition of Icelandic. Language Acquisition, 2, 359413.
Sportiche, D. (1998). Partitions and atoms of clause structure. subjects, agreement, case and clitics. London: Routledge.
Thornton, R., & Wexler, K. (1999). Principle B, VP ellipsis, and interpretation in child grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Verrips, M., & Weissenborn, J. (1992). Routes to verb placement in German and French. In Meisel, J. (Ed.), The acquisition of verb placement. Functional categories and V2 phenomena in language acquisition. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Vigliocco, G., & Franck, J. (1999). When sex and syntax go hand in hand: Gender agreement in language production. Journal of Memory and Language, 40, 455478.
Weissenborn, J. (1988). The acquisition of clitic object pronouns and word order in French: Syntax or morphology? Paper presented at the 3rd International Morphology Meeting, Krems, Austria.
White, L. (1996). Clitics in L2-French. In Clahsen, H. (Ed.), Generative perspectives on language acquisition. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.
Zribi-Hertz, A. (1994). Les clitiques nominatifs en Français: Syntaxe, pédagogie et variation. Doctoral dissertation, University of Paris.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed