Children's early prepositions in French: a social-interactional device

Abstract : Several considerations have been highlighted in the literature on the acquisition of prepositions in English:
- Their emergence is quite precocious since they are part of the fourteen first lexical items described by Brown (1973).
- Parallels are made between the acquisition of prepositions by children and the grammaticalization of prepositions in diachrony, based on the spatial value of children's first prepositions in English (Tyler & Vyvyan 2003). Semantically charged prepositions, (more ‘concrete', cognitively ‘simple' and less grammaticalized) are supposedly used by children several months before more functional ones (more ‘abstract' and more grammaticalized).
- Some studies also stress the fact that ontogeny does not parallel phylogeny. Factors determining the acquisition of prepositions are linguistic factors rather than cognitive factors and are linked to language use and frequency of input (Rice 1999).
In order to tackle these issues in French, we analyzed and categorized every use of prepositions in two longitudinal case-studies of French speaking children recorded one hour a month / recorded monthly (one-hour sessions) between 1;8 and 2;5 according to semantic, syntactic, phonological and social-discursive factors. We also made an account of omissions and misuses and tried to provide explanations for all these acquisition patterns.
We know that English-speaking children use prepositions such as in, on, and up very early (around 1;05) but in a ‘verb-like' manner (Tomasello, 1987) and in isolation. However, the two French-speaking children we studied first used the prepositions pour (for), à (to) and de (of) between 1;10 and 2;0 in complex constructions with argumentative functions. These productions would not correspond to prepositional constructions in English, but in particular to the possessive case. Where the French child says ‘les jambes de maman', or ‘à moi la poupée!' the English-speaking child will say ‘Mummy's legs' and ‘My doll!'.
The fact that linguistic means to express spatial relations are not the same in all languages has now been extensively documented. Prepositions are used in French, possessive adjectives in English, postpositions in Turkish. English has particles (up, down, back), but not French - children can use verbs to map the same concepts. Even though children have the same communicative needs, some aspects of discursive organisation are influenced by the structure of the particular language children are acquiring (Talmy 2003, Hickman & Robert, 2006) and by important parameters such as discursive organisation and context.
We show in this presentation that the first prepositions used by the two French children in our study did not have a spatial value but an argumentative value. Our observations on the acquisition of prepositions lead to the conclusion that « grammatical words » can express and organize social interaction, and are acquired by children thanks to the mediation of adults.
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Conference papers
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Contributor : Christophe Parisse <>
Submitted on : Thursday, August 16, 2007 - 6:16:39 PM
Last modification on : Thursday, June 6, 2019 - 2:45:05 PM

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Aliyah Morgenstern, Martine Sekali, Caroline Rossi, Christophe Parisse. Children's early prepositions in French: a social-interactional device. Child language seminar, 2007, Reading, United Kingdom. ⟨halshs-00167229⟩

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