To be or to be: Use and acquisition of the Spanish copulas

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Four studies investigated adults' uses and children's acquisition of the two Spanish synonyms of to be, ser and estar. The first study consisted of a distributional analysis of ser and estar in Spanish spoken by children and adults. The results revealed that the copulas were used contrastively across different syntactic contexts. Forms of ser were used exclusively with nominals, forms of estar were used as auxiliaries and with locations, and both forms were used with adjectives. Study 2 documented a semantic difference between ser and estar with adjectives for adults such that adjectives that were labelled with ser were weighed more heavily than attributes that were labelled with estar in a categorization task. In Study 3, a semantic contrast between objects and events with locations in adults was empirically demonstrated. Study 4 examined the use of the Spanish copulas with adjectives and locations by Spanish-speaking children from 3 to 11 years of age. The findings from Study 4 suggest that Spanish-speaking children honored fewer semantic contrasts than adults, and that their uses have a more syntactic basis. The study's implications for the structure of language and its acquisition are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)408-427
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1992
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This article is based on a doctoral dissertation submitted to the Psychology Department of Indiana University, and subsequent work conducted at the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota. The research was supported by a Grant-in-Aid and an Gff-campus Research Fellowship to the author from Indiana University, a Summer Faculty Fellowship and a Spelman Rockefeller Seed Grant from the University of Iowa, and by a Graduate School Grant-in-Aid from the University of Minnesota. The author thanks the dissertation committee, consisting of L. B. Smith, D. B. Pisoni, J. Johnston, J. Clements, and E. Thelen, and extends a special thanks to Linda B. Smith, for supporting the research financially and conceptually. Thanks also go to Brian MacWhinney for providing the Spanish transcripts from the Child Language Data Exchange System, and Dan I. Slobin for the Spanish Frog Story Data. The Spanish Frog Story Data were used with the written permission of M. Eugenia Sebastian, who directed the collection of these data. The author also thanks the children, parents, and staff of Lavemia Bilingual School for their participation. And finally, thanks go to M. Eugenia Sebastian, Jose Luis Linaza, and the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on a previous draft of the paper. Portions of this research were presented at the Tenth Biennial Conference on Human Development in Charleston, South Carolina, March, 1988. Please send correspondence and reprint requests to Maria D. Set-a, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota, 51 East River Road, Minneapolis, MN 55455.

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