Hostname: page-component-588bc86c8c-zwqp5 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-11-30T20:32:38.102Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Young children's conversations with their mothers and fathers: differences in breakdown and repair*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 February 2009

Michael Tomasello*
Emory University
Gina Conti-Ramsden
University of Manchester
Barbara Ewert
Harvard University
Department of Psychology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, 30322, USA.


In this study we compared the conversations of mothers and fathers with their children at 1;3 and 159, with special attention to breakdown-repair sequences. We found that, overall, children and secondary caregiver fathers experienced more communicative breakdowns than did children and primary caregiver mothers. More specifically, fathers requested clarification of their children more often than did mothers, and they most often used a non-specific query (e.g. What?). Mothers used more specific queries (e.g. Put it where?) and were involved in more ‘looped’ sequences involving multiple requests for clarification. Fathers also failed to acknowledge child utterances more often than did mothers. After a father non-acknowledgement, children tended not to persist and when they did they often received further non-acknowledgements; the dyad did not often return to the child's original topic. After a maternal non-acknowledgement, on the other hand, children persisted and the dyad more often returned to its previous topic. The results are interpreted as support for the Bridge Hypothesis which claims that fathers present children with communicative challenges that help prepare them for communication with less familiar adults.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1990

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



We would like to thank Lisa Kaley and Jeff Farrar for assistance in the original coding of transcripts. Thanks also to Catherine Snow for the use of research resources and to Sara Mannle for helpful suggestion on the manuscript.



Anselmi, D., Tomasello, M. & Acunzo, M. (1986). Young children's responses to neutral and specific contingent queries. Journal of Child Language 13. 135144.Google Scholar
Davidson, R. (1987). Preparing preschoolers for school language tasks: the father's role Unpublished qualifying paper, Harvard Graduate School of Education.Google Scholar
Gallagher, T. (1981). Contingent query sequences within adult-child discourse. Journal of Child Language 8. 5162.Google Scholar
Gleason, J. B. (1975). Fathers and other strangers: men's speech to young children. In Dato, D. P. (ed), Developmental psycholinguistics: theory and applications. (Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics). Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.Google Scholar
Golinkoff, R. & Ames, G. (1979). A comparison of mothers' and fathers' speech with their young children. Child Development 50. 2832.Google Scholar
Hiadek, E. & Edwards, H. (1984). A comparison of mother-father speech in the naturalistic home environment. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 13. 321–32.Google Scholar
Kavanaugh, R. & Jen, M. (1981). Some relationships between parental speech and children's object language development. First Language 2. 103–15.Google Scholar
Kavanaugh, R. & Jirkovsky, A. (1982). Parental speech to young children: a longitudinal analysis. Merill-Palmer Quarterly 28. 197311.Google Scholar
Killarney, J. & McCluskey, K. (1981). Parent-infant conversations at age one: their length, reciprocity, and contingency. Paper presented to the Society for Research in Child Development. Boston.Google Scholar
Lipscomb, T. & Coon, R. (1983). Parental speech modification to young children. Journal of Genetic Psychology 143. 181–7.Google Scholar
Malone, M. & Guy, R. (1982). A comparison of mothers' and fathers' speech to their three year old sons. Journal of Psycholonguistic Research 11. 599608.Google Scholar
Mannle, S. (1986). Pragmatics of sibling speech: an examination of conversations between preschool age children and their two year old siblings. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Emory University.Google Scholar
Mannle, S. & Tomasello, M. (1987)., Fathers, siblings and the bridge hypothesis. In Nelson, K. E. & van Kleeck, A. (eds), Children's language. Vol. 6 Hillside NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
Masur, E. & Gleason, J. (1980). Parent-child interaction and the acquisition of lexical information during play. Developmental Psychology 16, 404–9.Google Scholar
McLaughlin, B., White, D., McDevitt, T. & Raskin, R. (1983). Mothers' and fathers' speech to their young children: similar or different? Journal of Child Language 10. 245–52.Google Scholar
McTear, M. (1985). Children's conversations. London: BlackwellGoogle Scholar
Porter, R. & Conti-Ramsden, G. (1987). Clarification requests and the language impaired child. Child Language Teaching and Therapy 3. 133–50.Google Scholar
Ratner, N. B. (1988). Patterns of parental vocabulary selection in speech to very young children. Journal of Child Language 15. 481–92.Google Scholar
Rondal, J. (1980). Fathers' and mothers' speech in early language development. Journal of Child Language 7. 353–69.Google Scholar
Tomasello, M. (1988). The role of joint attentional processes in early language development. Language Sciences 10. 6988.Google Scholar
Tomasello, M., Farrar, J. & Dines, J. (1983). Young children's speech revisions for a familiar and an unfamiliar adult. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research 27. 359–63.Google Scholar
Tomasello, M. & Mannle, S. (1985). Pragmatics of sibling speech to one year olds. Child Development 56. 911–7.Google Scholar
Weist, R. & Stebbins, P. (1972). Adult perceptions of children's speech. Psychonomic Science 27. 359–60.Google Scholar