The acquisition order of coherence relations: On cognitive complexity in discourse

W.P.M.S. Spooren, T.J.M. Sanders

    Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


    This article presents an analysis of the acquisition order of coherence relations between discourse segments. The basis is a cognitive theory of coherence relations (Sanders et al., 1992) that makes predictions about the order in which the relations and their linguistic expressions are acquired, because they show an increasing cognitive complexity. The child language literature lends support to two distinctions in the theory, Basic Operation (causal versus additive) and Polarity (positive versus negative). In two studies, additional data were collected to test the validity of two other distinctions, Source of Coherence and Order of the Coherence Relation. In the first study, children described a picture or conversed freely with the investigator. Both distinctions turn out to be necessary to account for the acquisition patterns. In the second study, the children's proficiency in dealing with negative causal relations was investigated. The two studies use different research designs. The first is a study of relatively naturalistic, only partially structured elicitation of extended stretches of speech produced by children, the other is an experiment on the understanding and production of coherence relations in short sequences of statements relying on nonsense words that lack a conventional semantic content. The two procedures tap very different kinds of communicative skills and linguistic as well as conceptual knowledge. The combination of these two studies allows us to draw valid conclusions about the acquisition of the various coherence relations. The data support the claim that cognitively complex coherence relations show up later than cognitively simple relations. © 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)3-26
    Number of pages24
    JournalJournal of Pragmatics
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2008


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