How children learn to talk

As a guy with Asperger’s, and the parent of two kids at different stages of learning to speak, the English language fascinates me. This might sound strange considering that part of living with autism means struggling to communicate, but by forcing me to obsess about words and meaning, those very difficulties made me not only an expert on morphology and syntax, but also a bit of a grammar Nazi. This means I find it incredibly satisfying to watch my girls struggling to work out the rules of the language – and often very annoying too.

‘But surely,’ I hear you non-parents cry, ‘children learn to speak by imitation. They don’t learn grammar until they’re at school.’

You’re wrong. Emphatically so. It’s hardwired into us to spot patterns, and two facets of the English language provide incontrovertible proof that toddlers are not simply passive recipients of their mother tongue, mindlessly parroting back what they’ve heard, but active participants in deciphering language: irregular verbs and irregular plural nouns.

Since most people don’t read grammar primers for fun, a bit of explanation is required. Let’s start with the verbs. There are strong, irregular verbs that have three forms to denote tenses (present, past and past imperfect), like ‘sink, sank, have sunk’, or ‘swim, swam, have swum’, and some with two, like ‘buy’ and ‘bought’, and ‘think’ and ‘thought’. By far the most common, however, are the weak, regular verbs that simply add ‘ed’ to the end to change tense, so ‘walk’ becomes ‘walked’ and ‘talk’ becomes ‘talked’.

Ever heard a child say that they ‘winned’ or they ‘runned’ or they ‘taked’ or they ‘eated’? They absolutely did not pick that up by listening to other people. What they’ve done is notice a rule – that you put a ‘d’ sound on the end of a regular verb to change its tense – and they’ve generalised that rule and applied it to every verb, including the irregular ones. Even if they’re not consciously doing it, they’re grappling with the rules of grammar to make meaning.

The same is true of irregular plural nouns. You pluralise regular nouns by adding an ‘s’ at the end, so ‘bed’ becomes ‘beds’ and ‘tree’ becomes ‘trees’. How, then, are we to account for toddlers talking about ‘sheeps’ and ‘childs’ and ‘mouses’, instead of ‘sheep’ and ‘children’ and ‘mice’? They’ve learned a rule and applied it where it doesn’t work. As seemingly incapable as they are, they’re advanced pattern-recognition machines. That’s right, every kid is a freaking genius.

Another thing children have to do when they learn to talk is limit the range of meanings a particular word can have. If you point at a picture of a silver convertible and say ‘car’, you’d be pretty confident they understand something so simple, but you’d again be wrong. The truth is that pinning down the meaning of a word is far more complicated than that. Are you saying this individual vehicle is a car? Are you saying that all things with wheels are cars? Are you saying all silver things are cars? All convertibles?

As an example, two of the first words my youngest learned were ‘dog’ and ‘cat’, and while she was accurately able to distinguish a dog from a cat, her fluency was actually rather deceptive. We quickly discovered that she understood ‘cat’ to be a catchall term for ‘anything alive that is not a dog’, so rabbits, mice, monkeys, or even people were cats in her mind. Similarly, my oldest often makes mistakes with gender-specific pronouns, thinking ‘he’ and ‘his’ are universal instead of referring to a particular sex, so it can be quite confusing when she’s talking about her friend Phoebe and starts using ‘he’ and ‘him’. Kids have to work out what individual words refer to, or which of several separate meanings is the one you want, and that’s before they can even feed themselves properly.

Speaking of personal pronouns, have you ever thought about the complexity of a sentence as apparently simple as, ‘She gave it to me’? In order to say it, children have to learn to distinguish between first, second and third-person, singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and identify the subject and object of a sentence.

‘Now you’re talking nonsense,’ I hear you cry. ‘That can wait till secondary school.’

Actually, no. While it’s true that English lost most of its inflections and gender constructions, for some reason we kept them when it comes to pronouns. This is another topic that needs a bit of unpacking, so buckle in, it’s going to get interesting.

‘I’ is the first person singular. ‘We’ is the first-person plural. It’s easiest to think of the first-person as involving yourself. I am part of what’s happening, whether it’s just me on my own, or me and some others. You use this when speaking about yourself.

‘You’ is the second-person. You is both singular and plural. You use this when you’re addressing someone to refer to them.

‘He’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ is the third-person singular. ‘They’ is the plural. You use this to describe what other people did that didn’t include you. It’s in the third-person singular that gender comes in – he, she, him, his, her – and is the reason it’s become a battlefield of the trans movement. The only gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun is ‘it’, which normally refers to inanimate objects or gender-indistinguishable animals, whereas many gender-neutral individuals like Sam Smith prefer to be referred to as ‘they’, which purists object to since that is a third-person plural term.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Subject and object is far easier.

The subject of a sentence is the one who does something; the object is the one who has something done to them. In English, we normally distinguish them by their place in the sentence in relation to the verb. Thus in the sentence ‘John kisses Mary’, John is the subject (the one who kisses) and Mary is the object (the one who is kissed). If you want to reverse the meaning, you simply switch the nouns around to ‘Mary kisses John’. This is why English is referred to as an SVO language, because we construct meaning using ‘subject-verb-object’ (about half the planet’s languages are SOV, or subject-object-verb, so would write ‘Mary John kisses’, but it’s not important to know this).

Many of the older languages that influenced English, like German, French, Greek and Latin, are inflected languages, which means the words change their form to reflect their relationship to other words. In Latin, for example, whether a word is the subject or the object is denoted by its ending rather than its position in the sentence, thus ‘Sextus laborat mulum’ and ‘mulum laborat Sextus’ mean exactly the same thing: ‘Sextus works the mule’ (theoretically, the words could be in any order, but in practice, Latin was an SOV language).

The trouble with inflected endings is that people are lazy speakers, so over time they drop word endings, which totally messes up the meaning and forces the language to evolve. English speakers tend be very lazy speakers – we’ve reduced most of our endings to the ‘schwa’ vowel sound ‘uh’, hence the endings of footballer, theatre, literature and banana are now pronounced the same (at least where I live, anyway), so that’s how we ended up with an SVO language. Whether a noun is the subject or the object it stays the same, unless it’s a personal pronoun, in which case it gets tricky.

Now comes the fun part. In order to speak properly using pronouns, you have to know the person (first, second or third), the quantity (singular or plural) and identify the subject and object. That’s how you know the first-person singular subject ‘I’ becomes ‘me’ as the object, just as the first-person plural subject ‘we’ becomes ‘us’ as the object. It’s how you know ‘he’, the third-person singular masculine subject, gives something to ‘him’, the third-person singular masculine object, and ‘she’ gives something to ‘her’. It’s how you know ‘they’, the third -person plural subject, becomes ‘them’. And this is without even mentioning the possessive pronouns ‘my’, ‘our’, ‘his’, ‘her’, and ‘their’.

Pretty complex ideas that need to be unpacked right from the start of learning to talk, not at secondary school. Whether they know it or not, kids are having to sift through a linguistic labyrinth just to say something as simple as ‘I gave it to her’. It’s the reason you hear so many toddlers say, ‘Me do it!’ and the reason it hits your ear wrong: they’ve correctly identified that ‘me’ is first-person singular, but they haven’t yet managed to grasp that ‘I’ is the proper term to use when they’re the subject. See? Kids are sorting out incredibly complex rules, most of them without even being aware they’re doing it.

What I really enjoy about children learning to speak is when their misapplication of the rules, mishearing of idioms, or simple mispronunciations create something genuinely interesting.

Like my youngest the other day walked up to the cat and gave her a kick. I told her off, and then a few minutes later she did it again. When I asked her why, she pointed at the screen and said, ‘Kick cat.’ It didn’t dawn on me until later that we’d been watching a programme on chocolate and they were talking about KitKats!

It’s also been really difficult to convince her that her name is not ‘me’, it’s Rosie. The closest we’ve managed is to get her to say, ‘Rose-me,’ which I guess is close enough.

My eldest, Izzie, is an expert at mixing up expressions. She always says, ‘by your own’ because she’s combined two expressions that mean the same thing: ‘by yourself’ and ‘on your own’. Also, because there’s a bedtime and a night time, she often shouts out in the middle of the night, ‘Is it morning time yet?’

Her pronunciation also leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of dropping the ends of her words and replacing them with a schwa, she has a tendency to drop the start of her words, so banana becomes ‘uhnana’ and ‘pretending’ is pronounced ‘uhtending ‘. And I swear she must have lived in Louisiana in a past life, because at times she has the most Southern drawl of any English girl I’ve ever met. Instead of hotel, she says, ‘Ho-TAY-ul,’ and instead of daffodil, it’s ‘daff-o-DEE-ul.’ It’s like sharing a house with that racist redneck sheriff from the Bond movies.

But the best thing she’s ever done is her song, ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy.’ She’s been singing it for months, and it drives me nuts, but I’ve only just figured out where it comes from.

If you study idioms, you find that their meanings and the words therein gradually change over time. This is particularly true if they contain a word that falls out of fashion and survives only as part of that idiom, and that word is normally changed to one that is more familiar. ‘All that glisters is not gold’ became ‘All that glistens is not gold,’ for example, and people everywhere these days say they’re ‘chomping’ at the bit, when the expression is ‘champing‘.

Kids do this all the time. With their limited vocabulary, they hear something and try to fit it into the words they already know. ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy’? She’s really singing, ‘Alcohol, alcohol, make you crazy.’

Of course, just because I know the difference between the definite and indefinite article doesn’t mean that I’m immune from misunderstandings, far from it, in fact. I’ll leave you with this little anecdote that happened to me the other day. I was listening to the radio in the car when an advert came on extolling the virtues of a particular brand of tyre. It ended with the line, ‘If you want a tyre without standing grip and performance, buy…’ and whatever the brand was called.

I frowned out at the road. Why would you want a tyre that has no standing grip? If you parked it on a hill, what’s it going to do, slide down to the bottom? And what on earth do they mean by standing performance? Surely you want the best performance when you’re driving down the road, not when you’re standing still. What odd characteristics they chose to highlight in their advert, I thought.

It was only later that I realised the man had said, ‘with outstanding grip and performance’. Whoops.

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One thought on “How children learn to talk

  1. Very interesting & equally funny. Not forgetting that when you started to speak, you spoke with a “plum in your mouth.” Where did that accent come from??

    Like

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