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How young children learn their native language

The speed at which children learn their native language is phenomenal. Picture: Rawpixel - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

PETER TRUDGILL on the remarkable way that children learn their native language.

The speed, accuracy and apparent ease with which small children learn their native language is a remarkable phenomenon, especially if we consider that they do this without mostly being taught the language by anybody.

It is quite true, of course, that there are some respects in which adults do teach infants parts of their mother tongue explicitly. Children can obviously be taught individual words. But this can only happen with a minority of items. It works well enough with nouns representing beings and objects which can be pointed to and named – technically, we would say that such entities can be given an ‘ostensive definition’.

It is a simple matter to indicate an animal, or a picture of an animal, and say ‘bunny!’, ‘doggy!’, ‘pussycat!’ And the same thing is possible with certain adjectives – colour terms, for example ‘This book is red; that book is green!’. And we can even test children on their knowledge of colour terms: ‘What colour is that car? What about that one over there?’

But most words, including nouns and adjectives, cannot be learnt in this way. It is not possible to point to honour, or severity; and we cannot give an ostensive definition of abstract nouns like gratitude or achievement. In particular, adults do not usually try to teach small children the meanings of vitally important function words such as with, for, the, if, by – how would you set about doing that?

Even more remarkably, parents do not generally teach infants grammatical rules – and they mostly would not be able to even if they wanted to. We all learn the grammatical rules of our language as small children without being aware that we are doing so; and we remain forever totally ignorant of the details of most of these rules unless, perhaps, we find ourselves teaching our native tongue as a foreign language and have to discover what the rules are from a textbook in order to teach them to foreign learners.

Adults cannot usually work out grammatical rules for themselves. But young children can: they are genetically programmed to do so in a way that would seem magical if we were not so used to it.

How do English-speaking children make sense of English grammatical phenomena such as the fact that we turn You swim into a question by saying Do you swim?, but we do not make a question out of You could by saying Do you could? Instead we say Could you? in spite of the fact that we could not say Swim you?

How is it possible for children to learn that the negative counterpart to I have to do it is I don’t have to do it but the negative version of I must do it is not I don’t must do it?

The process of children’s grammatical rule-learning can be witnessed rather nicely with irregular verbs and nouns. The past tense form of go is the totally unpredictable went.

Infants learn this rather early on, and will happily say ‘we went to the park’. Then, however, they start coming up with an analysis of how the past-tense-formation rule in English works.

Noticing the way in which the past-tense form of love is loved, that the past tense of fill is filled, they now start saying ‘we goed to the park’: having at first got the form right, they now get it wrong – but wrong in a very intelligent and analytical way.

Small children who say goed have successfully learnt the English past-tense verb-formation rule. In the same way, small children may start off by saying feet, then change to foots, and then switch back to feet again.

They first of all learn individual word forms, like went and feet. Then they acquire the grammatical rule. And finally they learn about the irregularities that do not adhere to the rule.