Skip to main content Accessibility help

A cross-linguistic investigation of the acquisition of the pragmatics of indefinite and definite reference in two-year-olds*



The acquisition of reference involves both morphosyntax and pragmatics. This study investigates whether Dutch, English and French two- to three-year-old children differentiate in their use of determiners between non-specific/specific reference, newness/givenness in discourse and mutual/no mutual knowledge between interlocutors. A brief analysis of the input shows a clear association between form and function, although there are some language differences in this respect. As soon as determiner use can be statistically analyzed, the children show a relatively adult-like pattern of association for the distinctions of non-specific/specific and newness/givenness. The distinction between mutual/no mutual knowledge appears later. Reference involving no mutual knowledge is scarcely evidenced in the input and barely used by the children at this age. The development of associations is clearly related to the rate of determiner development, the French being quickest, then the English, then the Dutch.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Margot Rozendaal, Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication, Spuistraat 210, 1012 VT Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Fax: +31 (0)20-525 3021; e-mail:


Hide All

We would like to thank Maya Hickmann and Elisabeth van der Linden for their advice on the data coding of French, and Cécile de Cat, Marie-Thérèse Le Normand, Marianne Kilani-Schoch and Marlies van der Velde for sharing information on MLU development in French. Furthermore, we are greatly indebted to Rob Schoonen for his advice on the statistical analyses in this article. Finally, we would also like to thank the participants at the IASCL conference (Berlin, July 2005) and at the conference of Emergence of Linguistic Abilities (Lyon, December 2005) as well as Elma Blom, Marian Erkelens, Henriette Hendriks, Elena Lieven, Danielle Matthews and Daniela Polisénska, and two anonymous reviewers, for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this paper.



Hide All
Abu-Akel, A. & Bailey, A. L. (2000). Acquisition and use of ‘a’ and ‘the’ in English by young children. In Howell, S. C., Fish, S. A. & Keith-Lucas, T. (eds.) Proceedings of the 24th annual Boston University conference on language development, 4557. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Agresti, A. (1996). An introduction to categorical data analysis. New York: Wiley.
Bassano, D., Maillochon, I. & Mottet, S. (2005). Noun grammaticization in French: prosodic and lexical factors on determiner use in children's speech. Paper presented at the Emergence of Linguistic Abilities conference, Lyon, December.
Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chiercha, G., Guasti, M. T. & Gualmini, A. (2001). Nouns and articles in child grammar and the syntax/semantics map. Unpublished manuscript, University of Milan/University of Siena/University of Maryland, College Park.
Clancy, P. M. (1997). Discourse motivations for referential choice in Korean acquisition. In Sohn, H.-M. & Haig, J. (eds) Japanese/Korean linguistics, 639–59. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.
Clark, H. H. & Marshall, C. R. (1981). Definite reference and mutual knowledge. In Joshi, A. K., Sag, I. A. & Webber, B. L. (eds) Elements in discourse understanding, 1063. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
De Cat, C. (2002). French dislocation. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of York.
De Cat, C. (2004). A fresh look at how young children encode new referents. International review of Applied Linguistics 42, 111–27.
Gerken, L. (1994). A metrical template account of children's weak syllable omissions from multisyllabic words. Journal of Child Language 21, 565–84.
Givón, T. (1995). Coherence in text vs. coherence in mind. In Gernsbacher, M. A. & Givón, T. (eds) Coherence in spontaneous texts, 0000. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Guerriero, A. M. S., Oshima-Takane, Y. & Kuriyama, Y. (2006). The development of referential choice in English and Japanese: A discourse-pragmatic perspective. Journal of Child Language 33, 823–57.
Hickmann, M. (2003). Children's discourse: Person, space and time across languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hoff, E. & Tian, C. (2005). Socioeconomic status and cultural influences on language. Journal of Communication Disorders 38, 271–78.
Kail, M. & Hickmann, M. (1992). French children's ability to introduce referents in narratives as a function of mutual knowledge. First Language 12, 7394.
Kilani-Schoch, M. (2003). Early verb inflection in French: An investigation of two corpora. In Bittner, D., Dressler, W. U. & Kilani-Schoch, M. (eds) Development of verb inflection in first language acquisition, 269–96. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Kupisch, T. (2004). On the relation between input frequency and acquisition patterns from a cross-linguistic perspective. In van Kampen, J. & Baauw, S. (eds) Proceedings of GALA, 281–92. Utrecht: LOT.
Kupisch, T. (2005). Acceleration in bilingual first language acquisition. In Gaerts, T. & Jacobs, H. (eds) Romance languages and linguistic theory 2003: selected papers from ‘Going Romance’ 2003, 143–60. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Lyons, C. (1999). Definiteness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
MacWhinney, B. (2000). The CHILDES project: Tools for analyzing talk. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Pannemann, M. (2006). More variability in French L1: Consequences for theories of DP-acquisition. In Vliegen, M. (ed.) Linguistik International 16. Variation in Sprachtheorie und Spracherwerb, 223–32. Amsterdam: Lang.
Pine, J. M. & Lieven, E. V. M. (1997). Slot and frame patterns and the development of the determiner category. Applied Psycholinguistics 18, 123–38.
Roder, B. J., Bushnell, E. W. & Sasseville, A. M. (2000). Infants' preferences for familiarity and novelty during the course of visual processing. Infancy 1, 491507.
Roelofs, M. (1998). Hoe bedoel je? De verwerving van pragmatische vaardigheden. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Amsterdam.
Ruffman, T. & Perner, J. (2005). Do infants really understand false belief? Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9, 462–63.
Schaeffer, J. & Matthewson, L. (2005). Grammar and pragmatics in the acquisition of article systems. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 23, 53101.
Schafer, R. J. & de Villiers, J. G. (2000). Imagining articles: What a and the can tell us about the emergence of DP. In Howell, S. C., Fish, S. A. & Keith-Lucas, T. (eds) Proceedings of the 24th annual Boston University conference on language development, 609–20. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Serratrice, L. (2005). The role of discourse pragmatics in the acquisition of subjects in Italian. Applied Psycholinguistics 3, 437–62.
Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tomasello, M., Conti-Ramsden, G. & Ewert, B. (1990). Young children's conversations with their mothers and fathers: differences in breakdown and repair. Journal of Child Language 17, 115–30.
Tomasello, M. & Haberl, K. (2003). Understanding attention: 12- and 18-month-olds know what is new for other persons. Developmental Psychology 39, 906–12.
Van der Velde, M. (2003). Déterminants et pronoms en néerlandais et en français: syntaxe et acquisition. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Université Paris 8.
Van der Velde, M., Jakubowicz, C. & Rigaut, C. (2002). The acquisition of determiners and pronominal clitics by three French-speaking children. In Lasser, I. (ed.) The process of language acquisition, 115–32. Frankfurt/Berlin: Peter Lang Verlag.
Veneziano, E. & Sinclair, H. (2000). The changing status of ‘filler syllables’ on the way to grammatical morphemes. Journal of Child Language 27, 461500.
Wigglesworth, G. (1990). Children's narrative acquisition: A study of some aspects of reference and anaphora. First Language 10, 105–25.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

A cross-linguistic investigation of the acquisition of the pragmatics of indefinite and definite reference in two-year-olds*



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.