Ask-A-Linguist: Child Language Acquisition

Answers for this blog excerpt were researched and provided by Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, independent scholar, with input from the following other panelists: Suzette Haden Elgin, James L. Fidelholtz, Susan Fischer, Nancy J. Frishberg, Anthea Fraser Gupta, Robert A. Papen, Elizabeth J. Pyatt, and Harry A. Whitaker. For a full response, please see the Ask-A-Linguist FAQ section regarding child language acquisition.

Is the language acquisition process the same for all children?

All children acquire language in the same way, regardless of what language they use or the number of languages they use. Acquiring a language is like learning to play a game. Children must learn the rules of the language game, for example how to articulate words and how to put them together in ways that are acceptable to the people around them. In order to understand child language acquisition, we need to keep two very important things in mind:

First, children do not use language like adults, because children are not adults. Acquiring language is a gradual, lengthy process, and one that involves a lot of apparent ‘errors’. We will see below that these ‘errors’ are in fact not errors at all, but a necessary part of the process of language acquisition. That is, they shouldn’t be corrected, because they will disappear in time.

Second, children will learn to speak the dialect(s) and language(s) that are used around them. Children usually begin by speaking like their parents or caregivers, but once they start to mix with other children (especially from the age of about 3 years) they start to speak like friends their own age. You cannot control the way your children speak: they will develop their own accents and they will learn the languages they think they need. If you don’t like the local accent, you’ll either have to put up with it or move to somewhere with an accent you like! On the other hand, if you don’t like your own accent, and prefer the local one, you will be happy. A child will also learn the local grammar: ‘He done it’; ‘She never go there’; ‘My brother happy’ and so on are all examples of non-standard grammar found in some places where English is spoken. These might be judged wrong in school contexts (and all children will have to learn the standard version in school) but if adults in the child’s community use them, they are not “wrong” in child language.

These examples show that different dialects of English have their own rules. The same is of course true of other languages and their own dialects. In what follows, examples are in English, because that is the language in which this article is written, although the child strategies illustrated in the examples apply to any language and to any combination of languages that your child may be learning.

We start with a number of observations about child learning in general, about speech and language, and about how children themselves show us how they learn, before turning to children’s acquisitional strategies. These also teach us that children follow their own rules, and that they need plenty of time to sort these rules out.

How do children acquire words?

Suppose you show a banana to a group of children who are at the one-word stage, when all their utterances contain single words only, and suppose you ask them “What’s this?” Some children will say ‘nana’, others will say ‘mama’, others still may say ‘bana’. Child words like these exemplify children’s use of generalization: children modify words, replace, add and remove word bits to make them conform to a general pattern that they find easier to tackle. The two-syllable structure of these words and others like them, with straightforward consonant-vowel syllables and a sample of preferred consonants, is typical of children’s first words all over the world.

But suppose now one child in the group replies ‘moo’ to your question. Before you start worrying about this child’s linguistic (or cognitive) abilities, try to think about your question and the child’s answer on the child’s own terms, not yours. You are expecting a word that sounds like ‘banana’, but how does the child know that? And how do you know what prompted the child to give you this answer? In particular, why should the sound of the word be more relevant to the child than, say, the shape of the object you’re holding? It may well be that this child has recently been fascinated by the night sky, and all shiny things in it whose names he’s just learned. And a banana does look like a waning or waxing moon. This child is also generalising, though in a different way from his friends. He is besides showing you that he knows how to relate what he learned before to whatever activity is required of him now, which is a very good thing to have mastered indeed. (On a side note, it is this kind of generalization that makes young children, sometimes very embarrassingly, call all adult males ‘daddy’.)

How do children acquire sentences?

Once the first words are in place, children are quick to realize that saying several words together in one same utterance is the next step. So, just as they will attempt to run as soon as they are able to stand up unaided, and will then stumble and fall because of lack of practice walking, they will attempt to say too many words in one go, and will end up jumbling them all together. Many children start stuttering or stammering at this multi-word stage of their development precisely for this reason: lack of practice. Other children may even fall silent altogether for a while, until they’ve worked out the very difficult skill of coordinating breathing with speaking in long utterances. Professional speakers need practice in this skill too, so that speaking for long periods of time does not wear them out completely, or impair their delivery. Yet other children won’t bother at all about the way they sound and will just go on producing unintelligible speech until things fall naturally in place for them, even those children who may have had perfect single-word articulations before.

Jean Berko-Gleason with the wug drawing used during her child language acquisition studies.

Jean Berko-Gleason with the wug drawing used during her child language acquisition studies.

Other examples of child acquisitional strategies surface in ways that would also appear to give reason for concern, if we didn’t know better. Say your child uses so-called irregular past tenses like came, drove or slept with no problem, as well as regular ones like baked or cried. Then one day he starts saying things like ‘Mummy drived me to school today’, or ‘I sleeped so well’. What is happening here is that your child has realized that there is a pattern in some part of the language: some words (linguists call them ‘verbs’) can have extra sounds at the end to indicate events that happened before the time we are talking about them. Most verbs are regular in this way, so productions like catched or swimmed show that your child has actually learned a general rule and immediately started applying it to any verb — just as you once learned that cockroaches ‘pattern’ in a certain way, and so this funny new insect before you must be a cockroach too. The same happens with noun plurals, and your child may start talking about foots or even feets whereas he talked about feet before. Child language researcher Jean Berko-Gleason used an ingenious experiment to show that children are in fact learning rules of language. For example, she showed children a picture of one imaginary, cuddly animal and told the children that the animal was called a ‘wug’. Then she showed a picture with two of these cuddly beings and asked the children: “Now there are two of them. There are two ___”. The children had to complete her sentence, and they used the correct plural form ‘wugs’, showing that they could apply the plural rule to words that they had never heard before. Apparent ‘errors’ like foots (or catched) thus mean that learning is progressing as it should: the previous, ‘correct’ production of irregular and regular forms was simply due to imitation. The generalized forms will disappear once your child is ready to learn the next rule, which is that some words follow the general rule and others don’t.