On the exploding Star.

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.

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14 comments

  1. Ehh, I always struggle with the building-blocks of language. When I started to learn Latin, the tenses crucified me, and I realised that I had evidently managed to fall ill during that week of primary school when they learnt the terms! I even, to my shame, called an adjective a verb in an absent-minded moment the other day. I’ve been meaning to go and buy a good book on the topic and mug up the terminology and structure, but… yes. I am always chock-full of good intentions.

    The Star’s bi-linguality is wonderful. And I am deeply in awe of his phrasal verb prowess. *Fist bump* that child!

    1. Do not get me started on the lack of good grammar teaching in UK schools. Do not. I will rant for hours. Although they are making a bit of an effort – more than they did with us.

      But English teachers are literature graduates, and to be honest they only have the shakiest grasp of the real nuts and blots grammar stuff themselves. Oh dear, I’m off.

      Pressing the post button now…

  2. Estonian has 14 cases and I am just amazed at how my two year old has most of them figured out. I guess the English equivalent is prepositions and he doesn’t have much trouble with those either…. My 6-year old, however, took much longer to grasp both languages…. shows that no two kids are the same…

    The one persisting problem my oldest has in English these days is the fact that he refers to everyone as a “he”, no matter the gender. I have the same tendency and it’s all because in Estonian there is no he/she/it… I hope unlike me, my kids will overcome it in the future and stop talking about Ms Wood as he :|

    1. Estonian is one of those languages which makes me wake up in a cold sweat at the thought (the other is Finnish, for obvious reasons). Although you are right. You have cases, we have prepositions and phrasal verbs. On the other hand, I believe you have five hundred different vowel sounds too…

      The Star has preposition problems. I think it’s too absract for him. Makes me oddly uncomfortable when he asks ‘what her name?’ regardless of gender though. That’s interesting about no he/she/it though. No pronouns or no gender markers at all?

      1. Speaking about Finnish, did you know (I’ve probably told you before, but still) that Tolkien studied Finnish in order to be able to read the Finnish national epic Kalevala in original?

        And when he constructed the Elven language Quenya he himself described Quenya as being “composed on a Latin basis with two other (main) ingredients that happen to give me ‘phonaesthetic’ pleasure: Finnish and Greek”.

        Oh God, sorry – I’ll stop now before I get completely carried away shedding Kalevala crumbles all over this place.

  3. Whoa, good for The Star! And you :)

    And far be it from me to blow your bubble on The Star’s development of a sense of time, but here’s what my young one (a little older at 3.5) does: uses similar though somewhat more elaborate phrases correctly indicating time, while demonstrating he actually has no sense of time.

    Like this: “Last week I played with G! That was fun!!!” when ‘yesterday’ refers to earlier in the morning (or any other time between when he says it and when he actually had his little playdate.

    Or: “Tomorrow I’m going to eat cake!” when ‘tomorrow’ might be coming up at some point in the future and he’s aware that there will be cake.

    His grammar is alright (though he has his share of age-appropriate issues, of course), but we are not entirely sure how he’s coping on a daily basis without going nuts.

    Otherwise I am slightly upset I got out of linguistics as early as I did (like after year 1, ahem), ’cause it would make analysing the kidlets’ language development so much easier :)

    1. He’s got the basic past and future right though, hasn;t he, your son? I think that’s pretty impressive. Isn;t that supposed to be something chimps and such can’t do? Or perhaps that’s as far as chimps get.

      I don’t do enough analysing really, given that I do have a geeky kind of interest in it. I will regret it later. I always meant to record the Star’s utterances, from babble onwards for example, but it’s already a bit late for that. Maybe I’ll do it with the Comet (who will therefore be ask silent as silent) and start with the Star too to have comparison points.

      Discourse analysts put tape recorders under the sofas at parties…

  4. @ Titania. I have a vauge memoryt of a connection between Tolkin and Finnish, which may indeed be your fault. That’s linguistic snobbery though that is. Picking one of the impossible languages to play around with.

    @ Sarah. From a language geek point of view, I wish I knew Russian better, as I can’t do the comparison bit, which is frustrating. Of course, if I did know it better, I’d be abke to nudge him along in that language better too. *sigh*

  5. Hi there,

    A friend pointed me towards your blog and I haven’t been able to stop reading :) . The mom things and two-culture things may have been very familiar, but this particular post made me really want to reply – being, myself, an English-major-language-acquisition-geek with two children growing up in Dutch/Romanian.
    What I wanted to say was that I had never really bought the Chomskian hypothesis for acquisition, but now, while seeing it happen `live`, I’m more certain about the `chunks` approach than ever. However, that also means that I believe we actually `master` grammatical concepts only when we get them out of the chunks. I don’t want to burst any of your bubble with this, because I’m sure the Star is a STAR and because it’s very possible that he already understands time concepts well – but the tense examples you give sound like set blocks that you’d prompt in exactly the same form. I suppose I wasn’t persuaded of M’s (my eldest, 3y3m) ability to understand tense until she produced her first `regularised irregular`, about two months later than the Star’s age now.
    The second thing I wondered about in your description was whether perhaps the fluency of the one partner in the other partner’s language is a factor in how exposed the child is to the `common` language. I know in our case it is – what you describe as full sentences and grammatical constructions happens in Dutch, which is the home language, whereas Romanian is purely lexical for now. This is what I’m most worried about, it seems an impossible task for me not to codeswitch and to stick to Romanian with the kids while also addressing my husband in Dutch. Thank god for the au-pair (our version of the MiL :) ).
    I will most certainly be back soon!

    1. Sorry for the delay in replying. Was sulking with a sprained ankle.

      Oh, I’m with you on the chunks come first thing. Absolutely the Star’s first attempts at tenses were fixed phrases. But contextually appropriate fixed phrases, which was what so fascinated me about the time aspect. I still maintain there was awareness of time there.

      But he’s definitely slotting the same verbs into different tense/ aspect forms now. Mainly present simple and continuous.

      Anyway, thanks for visiting and commenting. It’s nice to meet a fellow linguistic geek! Your language mix is interesting! Are you also adding English?

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