Interpretation of imperfective past tense in Spanish: Do child and adult language varieties differ?

Isabel García del Real*, Angeliek van Hout

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Some studies on the L1 acquisition of aspect in various child languages have discovered that imperfective aspect is acquired later than perfective aspect, whereas others find early adult-like performance. A variety of explanations has been advanced, particularly problems (i) with the semantics of imperfective aspect in combination with telic predicates, (ii) inferring the intended temporal antecedent in a discourse, and (iii) reasoning about an agent’s intentions to complete the event when observing a situation of an event in progress. The current study aimed to disentangle which of the purported explanations can best explain the acquisition patterns. Twenty-three Spanish monolingual children (mean age 5;11) and 17 adults were presented with telic sentences with one of two aspectual tenses in Spanish (pretérito indefinido and pretérito imperfecto). Using a picture-selection task and presenting the sentences either in a narrative setting or in a non-narrative setting, participants were prompted to choose between complete, ongoing, and incomplete situations. In the non-narrative setting children’s interpretation of imperfecto was adult-like, but in the narrative setting it was not. The target-like interpretation in the non-narrative setting reveals that the semantics of imperfecto in telic-imperfective sentences has been acquired (contra explanation i). Furthermore, Spanish five-year-olds did not depend on cues for agent intentionality when interpreting the imperfecto (contra explanation iii). The discrepancy between narrative and non-narrative setting suggests the challenge lies in discourse integration (supporting explanation ii).
Original languageEnglish
Article number237
Number of pages26
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept-2022


  • child language; first language acquisition; grammatical aspect; imperfective aspect; Spanish préterito imperfecto; préterito indefinido; psycholinguistic experiments


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