Referential Communication in Bilingual and Monolingual Children

Lorraine M. Rindahl, Marie A. Stadler*, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

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Abstract The purpose of this project was to discover differences in the referential communication skills of bilingual and monolingual children. The children participated in two barrier tasks, one in which each child followed verbal directions and one in which they gave verbal directions, each without benefit of visual cues. Differences were found between the two groups of children with the monolingual children outperforming the bilingual children with receiving and giving verbal directions, even though the bilingual children were considered fluent in English. 

Literature Review “The ability of a speaker to select and verbally code the characteristics or attributes of a given referent in a manner that will enable a listener to accurately identify that referent is known as referential communication” (Bowman, 1984, p. 93). There are five basic components of referential communication: speaker, listener, task, message, and listener response (Preston, 1984). Referential communication is a skill that crosses several different language components, including semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. Semantics is a system of rules that govern the meaning or content of words and their combinations (Owens, 2008). This is important to referential communication so that an individual knows the meanings of words as well as which words overlap vs. which ones are mutually exclusive. For example: “to the right of” and “beside” share meaning, though “beside” and “underneath” do not. Syntax is the structure of sentences. Referential communication requires an individual to understand syntax in order to properly give or follow directions. For example, “Put the arrow above the house,” has a different meaning from, “Put the house above the arrow.” Pragmatics is the study of language in context and involves the social rules of a language. It involves how one uses language to communicate an idea (Owens, 2008). Pragmatics are used when individuals vary their speaking style to match their audience; they would speak differently to a preschooler than to a coworker. Another pragmatic skill, one used in referential communication, is taking another’s perspective and involves speaking so that the listener will comprehend the information.

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