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Early talk about the past: the origins of conversational stories of personal experience*

  • Peggy J. Miller (a1) and Linda L. Sperry (a1)

This paper explores children's early talk about specific distant past events and its development into conversational stories of personal experience, with special focus on its evaluative function. The data consist of longitudinal home observations of five working-class children and their mothers from ages 2; 0 to 2; 6. Results indicate that during this period the children talked primarily about negative past events, especially events of physical harm; the rate of talk about specific past events doubled; temporally-ordered sequences increased dramatically; and the children became better able to accomplish such talk independently. In addition, one of the most striking findings is the extent to which these 2–year-olds were able to communicate their attitude toward the past event, with speech about the past containing five times more evaluative devices than other speech. These results suggest that (1) by age 2; 6 stories of personal experience emerged in incipient form, and (2) the roots of this genre lie not only in cognitive skills and social interactional support but in the emotional significance of the depicted event.

Corresponding author
University of Chicago, Department of Education, Judd Hall, 5835 South Kimbark Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.
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This research was supported by a Spencer Foundation Seed Grant awarded to Miller and by a fellowship from the Harris Center for Developmental Studies at the University of Chicago to Sperry. We wish to thank Susan Goldin-Meadow for helpful criticism of the manuscript.

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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
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