More than one way to catch a frog: a study of children’s discourse in an Australian contact language
AffiliationDepartment of Linguistics and Applied Linguistics
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationsDisbray, S. (2008). More than one way to catch a frog: a study of children’s discourse in an Australian contact language. PhD thesis, Department of Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, The University of Melbourne.
Access StatusOpen Access
Children everywhere learn to tell stories. One important aspect of story telling is the way characters are introduced and then moved through the story. Telling a story to a naïve listener places varied demands on a speaker. As the story plot develops, the speaker must set and re-set these parameters for referring to characters, as well as the temporal and spatial parameters of the story. To these cognitive and linguistic tasks is the added social and pragmatic task of monitoring the knowledge and attention states of their listener. The speaker must ensure that the listener can identify the characters, and so must anticipate their listener’s knowledge and on-going mental image of the story. How speakers do this depends on cultural conventions and on the resources of the language(s) they speak. For the child speaker the development narrative competence involves an integration, on-line, of a number of skills, some of which are not fully established until the later childhood years. The study in this thesis investigates the development of reference tracking in a complex and dynamic language setting. It investigates the language and language development of Warumungu children. The Warumungu central are Indigenous Australians, whose traditional country is in northern Central Australia. Most Warumungu live today in the township of Tennant Creek. Younger people no longer develop full active proficiency in their heritage language, Warumungu, but speak a contact language, Wumpurrarni English as a first language. This contact variety is characterised by substantial variability. In addition to Warumungu and Wumpurrarni English, children learn Standard Australian English, as this is the sole language of instruction in school. The study describes properties of Wumpurrarni English, in particular nominal expressions, used for tracking reference. These are contrasted with descriptions of the most documented and neighbouring creole variety, Roper River Kriol, and with Standard Australian English. It is demonstrated that in Wumpurrarni English, the marking of new versus given referents on the noun phrase is not obligatory. However a number of structures, such as left dislocation and emphatic subject chaining are used to mark discourse prominence. Repetition of topics, clauses and elements of clauses are stylistic features of a ‘good story’ in Wumpurrarni English. The study investigates the ways that Warumungu children of different ages introduce, maintain and switch reference, and how, across stretches of their narrations, strategies for managing reference are used. These investigations reveal developmental differences across the age groups in the study, which resonate with studies of children’s narrative competence in other languages, illustrating general cognitive and linguistic development. In addition, some children chose to narrate in a speech style more English-like than they normally use. This set of narrations reveals interesting findings about differences between Wumpurrarni English and Standard English, children’s perceptions of these differences, and insights into the additional cognitive load that speaking in ‘English’ represents.
Keywordschildren's language, narrative, discourse development, reference tracking, Indigenous children, Indigneous languages, contact languages, Wumpurrarni English
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