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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Putting words together

Learning a lot of words is useful, but it is only one component of language acquisition. Children also have to discover how to put words together, and this proves to be a still more remarkable process. Researchers who have compiled detailed observational records of children’s early language have found that after a period of single word utterances, many children undergo a transitional period in which they begin to place separate utterances in close and meaningful juxtaposition. Hoff (2001) describes a girl she was studying who woke up with an eye infection. The child pointed to her eye and said, ‘Ow. Eye.’ Hoff-Ginsberg reports that each word was spoken as if it had been said by itself, and there was a pause between them. This is not a sentence, but the meaning is conveyed as effectively as if the child had said, ‘Darn it! My eye hurts.’ The child has begun to exploit the potential for language to express relationships by placing words next to each other. These transitional efforts are soon replaced by frequent uses of longer word strings – usually two-word utterances at first, and then lengthier combinations (Braine, 1976; Brown, 1973). There is evidence that the increase in word combinations in turn prompts the child to learn more words – perhaps because the child is compelled to search for more specific ways of expressing more complex meanings (Anisfeld et al., 1998; see figure 9.9). These early language structures can tell us a great deal about developmental processes. Firstly, they display regularity – children tend to use particular words in particular locations. For example, a child studied by Braine (1976) produced the following utterances (at different times): daddy coffee daddy shell daddy hat daddy chair daddy cookie daddy book daddy bread In each case, the child appeared to be expressing a possessive relationship – talking about daddy’s coffee, daddy’s hat, etc. Very occasionally, the child produced possessives with a different structure (‘juice daddy’), but showed a clear preference for the order given above. The child’s early utterances are also revealing for what they omit. The examples above convey possessive relationships but do not include the conventional inflection (’s), and there are no articles, pronouns or verbs.

As children’s utterances increase in length, there are clear consistencies in terms of what they include and omit (Brown, 1973). Children select the words with high informational content (‘daddy’, ‘book’, ‘cookies’), and economize on the minor (function) words and inflections. They produce occasional overregularizations – ‘mans’, ‘foots’, ‘runned’, ‘shooted’ – in which a regular rule (such as add –s to get the plural, or add – ed to get the past tense) is applied to an irregular word. Three main points have emerged from research conducted in this field so far:
1. Children are selective and structured in their early attempts at language.
2. Children sometimes commit errors, but their errors suggest that they are trying to convey meanings as effectively as they can, and they are sensitive to grammatical rules.
3. Progress is quite rapid, from a handful of words at 12– 15 months to large vocabularies and complex word combinations at age three or four.

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