Aspects of the Language and Thought of Four-Year-Old Maori Children: a Study Based on Bierwisch's Componential Analysis of a Set of Adjectives
Using an analysis developed by the linguist Manfred Bierwisch of the semantic components of the set of spatial adjectives, big, little, long, short, high, low, wide, narrow, deep, shallow, far, near, thick, thin, fat, thin, tall and short, four series of tests were constructed in order to determine whether differences existed in the meaning systems of Maori and of Pakeha four-year-old children with respect to these words, and whether Maori and Pakeha performances were similar across all four series. The series were: (a) A word recognition series testing for components of meaning in which pairs of components were placed in binary opposition. (b) An implication series testing for understanding of the concepts referred to by the words of the set. (c) An anomaly series, designed to elicit words of the set and to explore the children's understanding of the use of words. (d) A feature series which explored the children's implicit understanding of normativity and proportion. In addition the children were asked to do a drawing of something big and something little. Their mothers were also interviewed in order to collect information about a number of background variables such as mother's education, father's occupation and the language background of the child. Maori and Pakeha samples were established by asking the mothers to give the ethnic identity of the child. The main findings were that the Pakeha performed better than the Maori sample on recognition of the set of target words but this difference did not reach a level of statistical significance. Two words of the set, low and wide were recognised significantly more often by Pakeha than by Maori. With regard to the range of the words of the set elicited the Pakeha children produced a greater variety of words but, again, this difference was not statistically significant. The two samples performed about equally with regard to comprehension of the concepts signified by the words of the set. Nor was any important difference detected in the feature series or the drawings. An analysis of choice patterns showed no significant difference between the two samples. These results were interpreted to mean that the four-year-old Maori children in the sample did not exhibit cognitive deficit relative to the Pakehas even though they showed differences in word recognition and word use. Nor were they hampered in their access to the meaning of the words in the study by acquaintance with the Maori language. In order to assess the possible effects of various background factors, measures of word recognition, concepts, and strategies (choice patterns) were correlated with the background variables. The age of the child was significantly associated with the concept scores and with number of words elicited. Father's occupation was associated significantly with words recognised in the Pakeha sample but not in the Maori sample. In addition to exploring possible Maori-Pakeha differences in interpretation of words and concepts, the semantic feature acquisition hypothesis was examined and found to be inadequate as an explanation of the acquisition of words and meaning. An alternative multi-level model based on a hierarchy of preferred interpretations was developed to suggest the way in which the words of the set and their meanings are acquired by the young child.