You’ve spent nearly fifteen years of your life around adults learning English now. You feel quite at home with the mistakes they make, the concepts they have difficulty with and the way that they fail comprehensively to get to grips with articles.
So you find the way the Star acquires language completely fascinating. Mainly because it really is not quite the same, and you’ve never really had the opportunity to compare taught learning with full on just picking it up before. Or at least not in someone who doesn’t know anything about language when they set out.
Now of course some of that fascination is at just how quickly small human minds develop. The Star, for example, understands the concept of time. You feel this a big achievement for a two and a half year old. He says ‘Babushka go shopping’, ‘I did it’, ‘Where going?’ and ‘It gone!’ Notice that not only does he have the basic present and past tenses (present simple for ‘Babushka go[es]…’* and past simple for ‘I did it’**), but he has also mastered the continuous aspect (‘where [are we] going?’***, which you are assuming is present continuous given that he hasn’t shown much awareness of the concept of future time yet), and the perfect aspect (‘It [has] gone!’, present perfect****).
Believe me, any adult language learner who can differentiate between the simple, continuous and perfect aspects in English without conscious effort is well on the way to fluency. Particularly the perfect, which seems to defeat everybody, no matter what their language background
However, the interesting thing is that when he first started using them, you do not feel that the Star had really grasped tenses in any Chompskian way. It was not, you felt, that the Star had assimilated structural ‘formulas’ into which any relevant verb can be inserted in order to express the same concept. The Star used the phrases above correctly it is true, but almost exclusively in those words, as fixed chunks of language.
There are definite signs of breakthrough now though, with the –ing forms coming thick and fast and still entirely correctly now (‘Look! Doggie walking!’). He has also just started to invert subject and verb ( ‘is it…..?’ rather than ‘it is…’) to mark a question rather than a statement, which really is a pretty impressive piece of language engineering.
It’s the same with articles (a/an/the). He puts them in, while leaving them out is practically B’s only remaining grammatical deficiency in English. But only in phrases he knows and loves like ‘shut the door’ and ‘where the keys?’****
The Star in fact is like a little walking example of the lexical approach to English language teaching, the argument that fixed phrases are much more important that we usually give credit for and teaching discrete items of lexis and endless formulas is rather missing the point.
Of course, chunking is not just about grammar, but includes a lot of collocations – words that go together. For example the way that we say ‘a tall man’ rather than ‘a high man’. It’s noticeable that the Star says ‘fast asleep’ not ‘asleep’ when he is about to prod you and shout ‘wakey wakey’ in your ear of a morning, and ‘flying high’ (delightedly) when he is on the swings.
Unfortunately, the Star’s adjectives are mostly in Russian, and god knows you Russian isn’t sophisticated enough for correct chunks. Luckily, the Star’s Russian already far exceeds yours for the Star understands verbs of motion. He remembers to correctly distinguish between the verb you need to talk about going on foot and the one you need to talk about movement via car/ train/ bus, although you are forced to admit that he has only got two of the full variety of words to describe the different states the journey maker is in at the time of speaking.
He also does not use ‘na’ (‘here, take it’) to mean ‘die’ (‘oi, give it here!’) or vice versa. You are immensely impressed.
Even more astounding, though, is the Star’s ability with prepositions in English.
Prepositions are the bane of non-native speakers.
It’s not the ‘on the box/ in the box/ next to the box’ ones that give them the nervous twitch, or even time ones (why ‘in the morning’ but ‘at night’? Why ‘in July’ but ‘on Junly 23rd’? And so on). There are rules for those. Well, tendancies at least.
No it’s the completely arbitrary ones assigned to certain words for no reason whatsoever (‘succeed in’,, ‘good at’, apologise for’, ‘keen on’, etc etc etc. Etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc etc.). And as for phrasal verbs, the whole point of which is to take a verb, take a preposition (or, ok, an adverb) and slam them together to make a new work which bears no relation to any meaning its component parts have ( ‘get on’, ‘get down’, ‘get off with’, ‘get along’, ‘get over’, ‘get out of’, ‘get it up’, ‘get into’ ‘get through’, ’get back into’, etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc. Etc).
The Star uses phrasal verbs as though he is born to it. It is extremely disconcerting for you to hear someone with barely coherent English command you to take it off, turn it on, wake him up and put me down.
Luckily for your nerves, the Star is utterly pants at negatives.
Particularly amusing is the way he just doesn’t bother with any negative indicators at all. There he is, red faced and glaring, shouting ‘I like it! I like it!’ at the top of his voice. Or flinging his food crossly across the room with the words ‘Nada. Nada! NADA!’ [need].
When he does remember to add something, it’s usually ‘ne’ or ‘not’ before the verb. Which works perfectly in Russian, but isn’t quite there for English. That auxiliary verb problem again.
Despite this triumph for the Slavic language, you are not telling B at the moment that the Star is mainly still at the level of individual words in Russian, rather than actual coherent sentences that he is beginning to produce in English.
It might be a good idea if the MiL came back from her break soon.
* Used, correctly, to express routine, habitual behaviour.
** Used, correctly, to talk about a finished action in a finished time period. Usually when Papa asks him who broke the remote/ listened attentively at Russian class/ scattered Rice Crispies all over the floor/ helped Mama make the muffins/ pooed in his nappie instead of his potty/ drawn that beautiful picture after Mama has given Papa her daily report when he arrives home from work.
***Used, correctly, if repeatedly, to ask about an action in progress at the moment of speaking whenever you have both set out somewhere but have not yet actually arrived.
****Used, correctly, and with an expression of great surprise, to comment on a past action with present relevance. In this case why the toy duck/ apple/ piece of paper/ potato/ remote is not where he left it a few minutes ago.
*****The Star has the very Russian habit of leaving the verb ‘to be’ out. The astute reader will also have noticed the lack of auxiliary verbs in the examples of tenses. The interesting thing here is that none of these verbs have any serious lexical meaning. They are just there to convey the grammar, not the content of the utterance. So in ‘That doggy is walking’, ‘walking’ is the main verb, and ‘is’ is the auxiliary verb, for example.