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Copula Choice is Associated with Discourse Integration Skills in Spanish-Speaking Children

  • Miller, Karen1
  • 1 Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, Penn State University, University Park, USA , (United States)
Published Article
Studies in Hispanic and Lusophone Linguistics
De Gruyter
Publication Date
Sep 16, 2021
DOI: 10.1515/shll-2021-2051
De Gruyter


The present study investigates the relationship between discourse integration skills and Spanish copula choice in monolingual Chilean Spanish-speaking children. Previous research has focused on determining the age at which children associate estar to a transitory property and ser to an inherent property (Holtheuer, Carolina. 2012. Spanish-speaking children do not always overuse estar. Revista Signos 45(78). 3–19, Holtheuer, Carolina & Johanna Rendle-Short. 2013. Ser and estar: Corrective input to children’s errors of the Spanish copula verbs. First Language 33(2). 155–167, Schmitt, Cristina & Karen Miller. 2007. Making discourse dependent decisions: The case of the copulas ser and estar in Spanish. Lingua 117(11). 1907–1929, Sera, Maria. 1992. To be or to be: Use and acquisition of the Spanish copulas. Journal of Memory and Language 31. 408–427, Requena, Pablo, Astrid Román-Hernández & Karen Miller. 2015. Children’s knowledge of the Spanish copulas ser and estar with novel adjectives. Language Acquisition: A Journal of Developmental Linguistics 22. 193–207), showing that by 2 years of age children know the categorial distribution of the two copulas, but that at 5 years of age only some children, but not all children, have knowledge of the transitory/inherent distinction that often arises when the same adjective occurs with one or the other copula. The present study seeks to extend the latter research by further investigating the factors that might influence why only some children associate estar to transitory properties at 5 years of age, a question that will not only shed light on when the subtle meaning differences of the copulas are acquired, but also how they are acquired. Maienborn, Claudia (2005. A discourse-based account of Spanish ser/estar. Linguistics 43(1). 155–180) notes that estar is discourse-linked, while ser is not. Specifically, the use of estar with an adjectival predicate to compare changes to a person across different stages of their life relies on one’s ability to integrate the larger discourse (i.e., these various stages) into their statement. In the present study, to determine whether Spanish-speaking children’s production of the copula estar with adjectival predicates was associated with their discourse integration abilities, children were presented with both a Copula Elicitation Task and a Discourse Production Task. Analyses revealed an association between children’s discourse integration skills and their use of estar with adjectives to express transitory properties, a finding that indicates that children’s acquisition of estar is mastered late – at least in part because of their late development of discourse integration skills more generally. Most studies on the acquisition of estar with adjectival complements have focused primarily on comprehension. Experimental studies on children’s production of estar are rare. As such, this experimental study is one of the few that examines children’s use of estar in production and the first, as far as we know, that provides empirical support for the link between discourse integration skills in children and their use of estar with adjectival predicates.

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