When a child is learning a language, it’s very different from an adult that is learning a language. Children pick up language much quicker by listening to the voices that they hear during their development. When children are 18 months old, most of them have already learned how to say 50 words, however their passive vocabulary is most likely three or four times bigger (Crystal 2010: 34-35). Around that time, children start saying more complicated things – they start to combine words, for example ‘teddy floor’ and ‘milk gone’. We can already see the reflection of syntax around this time – ‘milk gone’ meaning ‘milk is gone’. After the second year, sentences like ‘give me car now’ begin to form. We can clearly see the phrase structure, however there is still lack of grammatical morphemes. When children are around three years old, they begin to form more complex clauses and we can see and appearance of inflectional and other grammatical morphemes. An example of this would be ‘Does a dinosaur eat spinach?” where we can see the appearance of an article ‘a’ and auxiliary verb ‘does’. Children can understand different rules of language at this stage, for example different tenses, but they often overapply them. After the age of four, the ability to naturally pick up language begins to disappear. This ability very rarely lasts until puberty.
The children’s capability to pick up language is quite remarkable. This ability is not only unique to spoken language, we can also see it with deaf children that pick up sign language. The psycholinguists Elissa Newport and Jenny Singleton have studied a nine-year old deaf boy, who was given a pseudonym Simon, and his parents who were deaf as well. His parents did not start to learn ASL until they were teenagers and their ASL was very flawed as a result. His parents often signed in front of him and he managed to pick up the language. And this is quite remarkable – although his parents were not very good at signing, he managed to latch onto a much more accurate version of ASL than them. It wasn’t difficult for him to understand sentences with moved topic phrases and when he had to describe complicated videotaped events, he did so with no problem nearly perfectly. Simon somehow managed to block out his parents’ incorrect grammar and latched onto inflections, that were used inconsistently, and interpreted them as being correct. He must have unknowingly seen the logic that was implicit by his parents’ use of two different kinds of verb inflections. What has happened in this case is quite incredible and it’s an example of a creolization by a single living child (Pinker 2015: 38-39).
Crystal, D. (2010) Discovering grammar. In A Little Book of Language [online] (pp. 34-39) Yale University Press. available from <www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1np8zv.8> [Accessed 25 Apr. 2020]
Pinker, S. (2015) The language instinct : the new science of language and mind [online] London: Penguin Books. available from <http://f.javier.io/rep/books/The-Language-Instinct-How-the-Mind-Creates-Language,-Steven-Pinker.pdf> [Accessed 25 Apr. 2020]