Journal of Child Language


The acquisition of the present perfect: explaining differences in the speech of Scottish and American children*

Virginia C. Gathercolea1

a1 Florida International University


This study assesses the role of frequency of input in the acquisition of the present perfect by Scottish and American children. Two questions were addressed: (1) Do adults speaking Scottish English use the present perfect more frequently in speech to children than those speaking American English? (2) If there is a difference in the frequency of input, how does this affect the course of development of this structure in the language of Scottish vs. American children? Cross-sectional data were collected from 12 Scottish and 12 American children aged 3; 0 to 6; 4 and from adults interacting with them in naturalistic settings. The data led to the conclusions that (1) Scottish adults use the present perfect construction in their speech to children much more frequently than American adults do; (2) Scottish children use the present perfect construction in their speech long before their American counterparts; and (3) frequency of input does play a major role in the timing and order of acquisition of the present perfect. However, its role appears to be an interactive one, in which it conspires with factors such as semantic, syntactic, and cognitive simplicity to make some forms easier to learn than others.

(Received November 19 1985)


[*] An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1985 Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in Toronto. This study was conducted in part while I was on an Honorary Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh and was supported in part by grants from the Minority Faculty Development Fund and the International Affairs Center of Florida International University. I am grateful to the teachers and children at the Nursery of the Department of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh and at the Child Care Center at Florida International University for their aid and cooperation in carrying out this study. I am also grateful to Vivien Rewt, Judy Schurger, and Katerina Logothetis for their assistance in collecting the data. Special thanks are due to M. Slade, C. Trevarthen, D. Vowles, and J. Cuthbert for openly making their facilities and subjects available to me in Edinburgh. I would also like to thank R. Weist and the anonymous reviewers for their comments and helpful suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper.