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The Development of Negation in Early Child Language Roy D. Pea (1980)

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1 The Development of Negation in Early Child Language Roy D. Pea (1980)

2 The ways in which children acquire language seems quite easy to understand. Language theorists still have difficulties figuring out how children do this. -i.e. how they construct meaning from words in conversation that include actions, gestures, and objects etc.

3 Empiricist account of child language acquisition Ostension theory Words paired with objects provide the child with referential connection needed for language symbolization -i.e. people substitute words for actions (putting finger on lips means quiet down) Problem with Ostension theory?

4 Children use negatives in their first years of word learning Negation cannot be referred to like nouns or adjectives can (i.e. colours) Therefore, children cannot be taught negation by ostension

5 Pea looks at the development of the semantics of negation in the transition from the pre-linguistic period to the linguistic period of communication among children.

6 Meanings of negation in sentences (Bloom, 1970) 1) Non-existence: the referent was not evident in the content where there was an expectation of its existence and was negated in child’s utterance or some gesture. E.g. “Gone!” 2) Rejection: the referent existed and was rejected or opposed by the child. e.g. “Do you want a cookie?”, “No.”

7 Denial: negative expression claimed that an actual statement or other was not the case. E.g. “Is this your toy?”, “No.” With these meanings as a basis, Bloom studied 3 American-English speaking children and found that for each child, the emergence of these 3 meanings of negation first began with non-existence, followed by rejection and then denial.

8 Pea believes that the order in which the 3 negative meanings occur, while still important, says little about how it is developed. While it is also important to look at the meanings of negation in sentences, what needs to be focused on is the meanings of negation in the single-word utterance period.

9 What is negation anyway? Has a number of meanings which are all much alike Denials, refusals, prohibitions, and statements of non-existence i.e. “no” or “not” or “gone” are similar but can mean different things Early verbal negation consists of a great range of contexts in which negative words occur individually.

10 Problem is in trying to figure out in which contexts children use negative words and how they use them.

11 Table of the contexts of negative utterances

12 Not a complete list Shows diversity of situations Some families have many features in common i.e. a child’s use of “no” to reject an object along with a pushing away gesture is similar to the child’s use of “no” in rejecting a prohibition that constrains his/her action.

13 Pea expands on Bloom’s list of the meanings of negation: Rejection negatives: same as Bloom’s, child rejects object, action or person etc. Disappearance negatives: similar to Bloom’s non-existence. Except: “unfulfilled expectation is added. i.e. Search or play is stopped because the child’s toy does not work or something is not found.

14 Truth-functional negatives: The use of negatives in response to a proposition (facts of the situation that is true or false (similar to Bloom’s denial). Self-prohibition negatives: The child approaches a previously forbidden object or begins doing something that was not allowed and then expresses and negative. Pea uses these 5 semantic categories in his longitudinal study.

15 In order to convey these different meanings of negation, children need some form of cognitive representation i.e. symbolic or abstract Rejection for example, expresses inner attitudes toward behaviours, events or objects etc. that are already present in the child’s “early motor-affective” activities. Therefore, there is no need for any cognitive representation.

16 Disappearance negation on the other hand, such as “gone” and “no more” require abstract representation. Object is no longer present The child needs to somehow acknowledge the object or event etc. that has disappeared.

17 Therefore, it may be obvious that rejection negation is the first to emerge within a child’s utterance of negatives, followed by disappearance negation. Truth-functional negation also requires cognitive representation, but with a far greater complexity.

18 Negatives with the meaning of not-x require the use of abstract language by other people and are therefore considered to be of a higher logical order than disappearance negation.

19 Longitudinal study done by Pea. Pea looked at 6 children from Oxford, England who were acquiring English as their first language. 2 boys and 2 girls (HS, SR, CS, and JK) were studied from 8 months old to 1 year and 8 months 1 boy and 1 girl (RT and CB) were studied from 1 year to 2 years old.

20 Each child was visited individually in their homes once a month for about 90 minutes and videotaped for 30 minutes while playing, feeding and other activities. Mothers were asked about their child’s uses of negative words and gestures prior to the study. Actions, pointing, gaze direction and objects present were also looked at.

21 The needed data for this study was based on headshakes and verbal negations. i.e. single or multiword utterances made up of at least 1 negative word or word occurring with a head- shake. Negative words consisted of “no”, “not”, “n’t” /na/ or /n Ə /, “gone”, “all gone”, “away”, “stop”.

22 Results All 6 children expressed rejection negation first i.e. headshakes before any verbal negation. RT: did not use negation until 1 year and 1 month. –shook his head on 5 different occassions: 3 in response to different questions such as “Do you want ___?” where referent was visible, once responding to a prohibition by his mother and once to reject bicycle clips offered to him.

23 4 of the children first used a headshake to reject food, diaper changing etc., and another 2 first used it in response to questions such as “Do you want some milk?” or “Want to go to bed?” Rejection was also found to be the first to be expressed verbally. 2 of the boys at the age of about 1 year and 8 months still had not used any verbal negation.


25 These findings do not suggest that rejection negation will be the first to be verbally conveyed by every child. The order of the verbal expression of the meanings of negation is not crucial What is crucial is the expression of the negative meanings by gesture or speech etc.

26 4 of the 6 children expressed negative comments of disappearance with the word “gone” in contexts where objects or someone had disappeared immediately beforehand. 1 month before the use of disappearance negation, “gone” for these children was used when objects fell out of their possession but stayed in sight and were then picked up by the child afterwards. 1 child still had not used “gone” for disappearance negation before the study was over, but said “ga” when blocks fell over or something fell out of his hand.

27 The development from “gone” in the present to “gone” for objects not present suggests that constraints in cognitive representation delay the expression of disappearance negation for objects etc. that are absent. Truth-functional negation was the last to appear amongst 4 children (CB, CS, JK, and RT) at ~2 years old.

28 Examples of Truth-functional negation

29 Unfulfilled expectation negation There is a constraint on the child’s activity or something has stopped or does not work. May be expected to emerge before disappearance negation. 2 of the children (CS and JK) met this expectation but 2 others (CB and RT) showed unfulfilled expectation negatives prior to disappearance negation.

30 Reasons for this, according to Pea, could be because of individual differences, the invalidity of the stated differences between disappearance negation and unfulfilled expectation negation or an over generalized definition of unfulfilled expectation. He leans toward the 3 rd reason

31 For all occasions where CB and RT conveyed unfulfilled expectation negation (before disappearance negation), they were in action contexts. It being in action contexts, Pea believes that it follows as a “primitive precursor” of existence or location uses by the child. Existence and location negations of unfulfilled expectation bring about knowledge within the child about structure in the physical world and social environment in the form of scripts, naturally occurring sequences, activities, objects, events and behaviours.

32 These scripts etc. act as normative knowledge so that when a child encounters differences between them, he/she can account for these differences by using negation.

33 Table showing topics of negation at highest level of abstraction for 4 children using verbal negation.

34 Example of unfulfilled expectation negation: CB at 22 months looked into Pea’s toy bag in which for the previous 10 months always found a ball she liked.. She said: “ball, mummy”…her mother answered: “I don’t know where it is” and CB then replied with “no ball, mummy” The ball did not disappear, it just wasn’t where she had expected it to be.

35 Another example:  CB found a teapot lid (usually on top of a teapot that was now missing); she held up the lid and said “no teapot.” This shows that habitual norms for most children in the study like CB’s, were peculiar to them but also very important. This is similar to adult situations in which adults also respond to things out of the ordinary or expectations with negation.  i.e. “There’s no milk left in the fridge.” Habitual locations of objects i.e. clothes and keys are important in everyday life for adults as they are for children.

36 Children’s negation is not similar to adults especially in the first years of life. Topics, as Pea calls them, are not represented in the same manner. He describes an example by Volterra and Antinucci (1978): Child looks at hospital tower and says “Look, there is no bell” Adults know that church towers have bells, not hospital towers and are not surprised when it is not there. In their view, the child aligns their representation of the topic with the adult’s or listener’s. How??? Through dialogue.

37 In adult conversations involving negation, our knowledge is usually misaligned with our listener’s expectations If it were aligned, then there would be no use for verbal negation E.g. A 16 month old says “gone” after a flame is blown out from a match. What Volterra and Antinucci believe is that the child negates the topic “the flame is present” which the child infers the listener believes.

38 However, Pea believes the problem with this is that inferring the beliefs of the listener isn’t always needed to verbally negate something because children use negatives without addressing some person i.e. when objects disappear. Also, inferring the beliefs of the listener requires a higher level of social cognition than 2 year olds can manage.

39 Cognition alone is not enough to provide the meanings of negation or the words children use to express them. The meanings and forms of negation are conveyed by older speakers of the language. Individual differences were shown to develop over the longitudinal study based on the social environment the children were raised in. Variations in word use to negation meaning was also evident.

40 Pea looked at topic initiation: Adult-initiated negatives are those the child produces after a preceding adult utterance. Self-initiated negatives are those not adjacent to adult speech but are spontaneously used. Findings for self vs. adult initiated negation: 40% of the total negatives produced by 4 of the children were initiated by the child. Therefore, the child made negative comments on his/her own when objects disappeared, toys didn’t work, things were found in unexpected places and self-prohibition.

41 Individual differences result due to variations. Example:  CS’ mother was prohibitive and constraining. 20% of CS’ negatives were self-initiated. 37% expressed rejection 26% expressed disappearance  72% of JK’s negatives were produced spontaneously Mother encouraged independent play. 58% were comments on disappearance 7% expressed rejection  40% of CB and RT’s negatives were self-initiated. Consequence of these differences is the range of the different meanings of negation. The social environment for negation provided by the adults can also affect the meanings of negation the child uses to express.

42 Interactionist Perspective The emergence of negation can be looked upon in 3 phases: 1.The child’s task is to find the meaning of negatives in adult speech and to form a basis as to what “no” and other negatives mean. 2.The child first uses negation and begins generalizing negation to new situations. 3.The conversational environment supports the child in expressing negation. The child then interacts with others and is addressed by the listener.

43 The predominant meaning of negation in the 1 st year is prohibition from the parent. E.g. “No!” and headshake. Parents will constrain and stop their child from certain actions; some of which are dangerous to the child i.e. sharp objects; and some of which are valuable.

44 Spitz (1957) looks at prohibition from the parent as being the first meaning of “no” for the child. He assumes that the child’s frustrated id drives take in the negative words and gestures and remember it by relating it to a specific emotion experienced at that time. Hence why the child’s first use of negation is for refusal or rejection. i.e. “no!”

45 For their child’s safety, a parent may have to verbally constrain and prohibit him/her from exploration. Spitz provides insights into the child’s formation of the concept of negation as constraint: Parents first physically constrain their children verbally then do it from a distance by language and gesture. Within a month of physical constraints, the children show signs of understanding “no” and the headshake in that type of situation. Another sign they understand is when they intentionally disobey.

46 The child may also show displeasure by physical means i.e. turning head to the side, pushing, throwing things away from them, flailing arms. When communicating rejection, the ways in which they were constrained by their parent earlier on is reflected. When the parent uses verbal prohibition without physical constraint, the child may first ignore the prohibition by not understanding. By repetition, or louder voice etc., the child then comes to understand.

47 Spitz claims that prohibition rejection is the first use of negation, However, Pea’s longitudinal study of negation does not support this claim. A few children first used negation to reject food, and others used it in response to actions such as diaper changing or in response to questions like “Do you want a drink?”

48 Edwards (1978) suggests that an important source of early word meanings for a child are the constraints an adult imposes on a child’s actions by social prohibition and those imposed by the physical world. He focuses on 3 areas of meaning: negation, possession, and words (Adjectives and Verbs). He demonstrates the connection between prohibitions, the child’s use of rejection negation and possession  i.e. “No, no touch,” “Mummy’s,” and “don’t” (self-prohibited contexts)

49 The child goes on to touch objects for example, that were prohibited by the parent. The child denotes “ownership” verbally due to previous situations in which others conveyed the idea of “privileged access” to certain objects. Example showing how social constraints are basic to child’s idea of possession

50 A = child, S= mother, E=experimenter

51 Therefore, constraints on actions according to Edwards provide an early source of word meaning. The child learns the sociocultural conventions for negation use i.e. obeying negation prohibition.

52 Conclusions According to Pea, constraint on a child’s actions is represented internally by the child. “No” as a constraint provides the basis for the conception of negation necessary for later use and for the understanding of truth-functional negation. Child’s development in acquiring this negation depends on social environment and cognitive representation. Constraints on a child’s behaviour provide what is necessary for the development of negation.

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