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Technische Universität Braunschweig
Institut für Psychologie
Abteilung für Enwicklungspsychologie
Professor Dr. Werner Deutsch
Claudia Ruff (3,5 kB)
Dr. Claudia Ruff

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Universität Hamburg
Graduiertenkolleg Kognitionswissenschaft, Schwerpunkt:
und Sprachentwicklungs-


Doctoral Thesis


Possession and Possessor in the Language Development of German and Italian Children

The study investigates the development of possessive constructions during first language acquisition of German and Italian children. The development of pronominal person reference can be followed well by studying possessive constructions.

If persons present in the situation are possessors of a described object, they have to be named in a pronominal way.

During development, the purely describing possessive constructions remain an area excluded from pronominal person reference for a long while. The development of pronominal person reference in the description of possessive relationships is an important landmark showing the acquisition of target language deixis.

Thirteen children, seven German and six Italian speaking ones, have been visited every two weeks in their home environment. Together with the mother they watch photographs of objects belonging to themselves, the mother or the father. The mother asks two standard questions "Was ist das?"/ "Che cos'è?" (What is this?) and "Wem gehört das ?"/ "Di chi è?" (To whom does it belong?). The father is not present in the experimental situation. Analysis of this data shows the influence of different factors on language acquisition:


Influence of the target language: Every language has its child language.

The target languages of the examined children, namely German and Italian, show differences concerning grammar i.e. word position, use of articles and especially use of pronouns. The influence of certain features of target grammar can be demonstrated in expressions of the child language.

The influence of the target language's structure on the linguistic form of the children's utterances becomes very clear in the analysis of specific constructions. The target language elements adopted by the children in their own utterances are very similar in specific language groups. After word position, the genitive case "s" of the German speaking group and the preposition "di" in the Italian speaking group are the first elements of target grammar the children use in their utterances.


Universal processes in language acquisition: "mine" and "not mine"

The context of an utterance influences the choice of the linguistic form. This study can demonstrate an important contextual difference between different possessive relationships for children of both language groups,. German as well as Italian children first develop pronominal person reference for the own person in the role of possessor. For naming other persons, including the mother present in the situation, the nominal possessive constructions are elaborated.

The coupling of form and function of the pronominal naming of the own person as possessor and the nominal naming of other persons gets very obvious in the statistical comparison of all utterances. However analysing the individual developments shows that there is no static connection but more of a preference similar to a rule. The linguistic distinction between the own and the other's possession is not normative for the children in the sense of a personal rule (Stern & Stern, 1987/1928). If the communicative situation requires it, they return to nominal naming of the own person as in the child language. The success of the communication takes precedence to the implementation of grammar rules.


Individual strategies and developmental progress

Every child has been followed in his or her development for about three months. Therefore evidence of single children's individual strategies and preferences of certain linguistic forms was found. Changes in the children's linguistic inventory during the study could also be registered. The linguistic distinction between the own and other's possession which was found for the whole group can be recognised in the data of the single children. A comparison of different children shows that the formal elements used by the children can be very different in detail. For example, in the first pronominal possessive constructions the German children use, the possessive pronouns are not yet declined correctly. The children use one preferred form, often "meine" or "meiner" together with all kinds of nouns. Some Italian children use the article almost target language conform, while others only use it with the noun which describes the object. On a formal level there are many differences between the single children.

These differences show that children do not only adopt the forms they perceive in the target language but that they interpret them in a new way. Every child searches for ways to express certain functions. In the experiment the description of possessive relationships is the function which every child expresses with the linguistic means he or she has.

The results of the study can be explained using a cognitive-functional model of language development. The cognitive activity of the child is central to the model. The child connects the different linguistic forms he or she perceives to different contexts to which they seem to be adequate. The coupling of different situations to various contexts is not always the same as in the target language. This effects systematic deviations from the target language. The forms the child perceives in heard language are used in a child language function. The different linguistic naming of own and other's possession using pronominal or nominal possessive constructions is such a distinction typical for child language.

The children use the different forms in those situations that they perceive as adequate. In doing this they use the forms offered by the target language. Therefore, the linguistic forms used by German and Italian children are very obviously influenced by the grammar of the two target languages. While not yet implementing all features of the target language the children soon adopt the grammatical markers for possession which seem important to them. This could explain the parallel use of the "s" in genitive constructions and the "di" in nominal constructions in German and Italian child utterances. Similar cognitive concepts are expressed with the means of the actual target language.

In context specific acquisition of pronominal and nominal possessive constructions, the cognitive activity of the child, his or her active exploration of the linguistic environment becomes apparent. A cognitive concept, the distinction between own and other's possessions causes different linguistic naming of the own person as possessor on one side, and naming of other persons as possessor on the other side.



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