A Child\\\'s First Steps in Language Learning
Oct 22, 2008 Young Learners 3933 Views
Children learn new languages very easily, almost too easily. Most adults find foreign languages quite difficult. They must toil and struggle and put in long hours of hard work to make even small gains in their ability in a new language. But a child seems to just pick it up out of thin air. To a child, it is all play and no work. And, to make it even more frustrating for the adult learner, the results of a child's language play are superior to the results of an adult's language struggle. It does not seem fair.
One commonly held theory to explain this phenomenon is this: God has given young children a magical ability to learn new languages. This ability slowly disappears, and is completely gone by the time an adult begins the task of learning a new language.
This theory is attractive for two reasons. First, it explains the phenomenon. Children learn a new language easily and adults do not because, according to the theory, the magic is limited to childhood. And second, this theory helps adult learners to accept their fate. With the magic gone, they find it a little easier to buckle down to their difficult studies, knowing that now there is no other way for them to learn a new language.
But before we accept this theory in its totality, that is, before we accept the proposition that this magic of childhood completely disappears in a an adult, we should observe in detail how a child learns a new language. If the theory is true and all the magic has fled from an adult, we will at least have observed the magic as it functioned in the mind of a child. This, in and of itself, should make a very interesting study. But if some of the magic of childhood remains in the mind of an adult, we might learn some secrets for waking that magic up and using it to make our task of language learning more enjoyable and more productive.
As the father of three children, I have the opportunity to observe in detail the language development of these children. But because the burden of parenthood rests not in observing the intricacies of language development, but rather in changing diapers, getting the food into the mouth before it gets onto the floor, wiping the food off the mouth and off the floor, and on and on, the details of language development often happen without being observed by the parents. So my wife and I, in an attempt to more closely observe the development of the spoken vocabulary of our second son, Colin, put a sheet of paper on our refrigerator door. When we would hear him use a new word, we would try to write it down on that sheet of paper, along with its meaning and the date it was first used. We did not attempt to keep track of his listening vocabulary, nor did we put a word on the list unless we heard him say it without any prompting. What follows is that record of his early speaking vocabulary.
From his Birth in September 1985 through April 1987
No words with understandable meaning were detected in his spoken vocabulary during this period. He did his share of babbling, and he was able to understand a number of our simple commands, but we could not understand anything he said.
- bah (ball)
- no: He would say this in response to a question.
- no way: The same as no, but he uses it with more feeling. It was picked up from his older brother.
- bay ball (baseball): A baseball game. He learned it while watching baseball on TV. Later, it also came to mean the baseball itself.
- eye: His first body part.
- uh (yes): He would use this in a reply to a question, and always put with it a slight nod of his head.
- dodeedah (thank you): The origin of this word is a mystery to us. He seemed to feel a need to say something when he received something, so he said this word. Later, he also used it when he gave something to someone else.
- mimo (milk): His favorite drink. This probably came from the transposition of the sounds that he heard when we would ask him, "Do you want some MOre MIlk?"
- Neal: Neal is his baby brother, who arrived in this world at the end of May.
- baby: Another name he learned for his new brother.
- kahku (cracker)
- nana (banana)
- kookoo (coo coo clock)
- dabuiya (apple juice): This seemed to be his honest attempt at saying apple juice.
- dayday (good night, bye bye): When he would go down for his afternoon nap, we would say to him dayday instead of night night as it was not night. So he learned it as something to say when someone goes to bed. He soon began to use it as bye bye when he was parting from someone.
- kah (clock): We let him play with a clock that was normally up on a high shelf, and he soon began to request it using this word.
- ohwai (water): As it was summer, he loved to play in the water outside. So this word first meant water to play with, but later it also meant water to drink. Origin unknown.
- babu (bubble)
- bapu (diaper)
- Mommy: His first love.
- hi! (hello)
- hahu (water): This meant drinking water. Though he used this word for a month or two, it soon dropped out of his vocabulary, as he used his word ohwai instead. Origin unknown.
- eehu (furikake: a Japanese seasoning that is put on rice): One of his favorite foods is rice, with this special seasoning on it. This was first a request for that seasoning, and later he also used this word to mean rice.
- Nanny (grandmother): His grandmother had visited in August, and we had called her Granny. This was his way of saying Granny.
- appo (apple): He used this word when referring to an apple, but he still used dabuiya when he wanted apple juice.
- hi (yes): This is the Japanese word for yes. He learned it from one of his older brother's Japanese friends, and it replaced his previous word, uh.
- taytoh (potato chips): Another favorite food, often requested.
- ka ka ka (trains and train tracks, both toy and real): While playing with his toy train set, his brother's Japanese friend would make the sound ka ka ka to represent the bells that ring at a train crossing when a train is approaching. Later he shortened and changed it to gaga and applied it to anything related to trains.
- nai nai (night night, good night)
- mimi (hammer): Origin unknown.
- wow (lion or bear): This came from his attempt at a roar. It is always said with spirit, though he uses it as a name.
- Mah (Tom, his older brother): Possibly a reversal of the sounds of the last two letters in Tom.
- la la la (bicycle): His attempt at imitating the most loved part of his brother's bicycle, the bell. The sound is not exactly la la la. Rather, it is made by moving the tongue from side to side as rapidly as possible. But the word was applied to all bicycles.
- bih (bib)
- dai dah dahp (Please come to the table. It's time to eat.): Though the origin of this word is unknown, it is always said with an intonation that mimics his mother's call to bring the family to the table, "Supper's ready!"
- bahpy (potty, children's toilet)
- puppy (puppy or dog)
- Eeyore: From the character in the Winnie the Pooh books.
- doo doo (garbage truck): The garbage truck that picks up the garbage in our neighborhood plays the Japanese melody "Akatombo". This word comes from the first two notes of that melody, and they are always sung, not just spoken.
- kahki (clock): This replaced the word kah which he used in July. It is related to the words tick tock, which he seems to get reversed.
- Here! (As he offers something to someone): We tried to teach this to him in place of dodeedah. He learned it, but quickly forgot it.
- eeuu (dirty diaper, as it is being changed): His imitation of the sounds his father would make while changing his dirty diaper. This was not so much a name for a dirty diaper, but just something to say while it was being changed.
- tar (star)
- duwee (tree)
- nay nay (bed): Because we would say night night when he went to bed, he would use this version to mean bed. But he would still use nai nai to mean good night as we put him to bed at night.
- bye bye: This began to replace dayday as the word he used when he parted from someone or something.
- moo (cow): Both the sound of a cow and his name for cow.
- Duwee (Julie): This is one of his little friends.
- guwai (quiet): When he says this word, he always puts his finger up to his lips, then says it in a loud voice. (I wonder who he learned that from?)
- dayday (airplane): This word previously meant bye bye, but it changed in meaning after he learned to say bye bye. When he would see an airplane in the sky, he would always bid it farewell as it flew away using his word dayday. About this time, this word was shorn of its previous meanings, and became his name for an airplane.
- wow (vitamin): The children's vitamins that he and his brother take come in circus shapes. As his brother's favorite shape is the lion shape, all vitamins were given the name related to the sound of the lion.
- Bye bye Daddy. (or Bye bye Mommy/Mah/Neal/Baby/Duwee): This was his first two word sentence.
- Pooh: From Winnie the Pooh.
- Owl: From the character in Winnie the Pooh books.
- bow wow: The sound for the bark of a dog, as he plays like he is one. But when he refers to a dog, he does not use this word. He uses the word puppy.
- choo choo (choo choo train): Gaga means trains in general, but the steam locomotive received this special name.
- neigh (horse): This refers to both the sound of a horse and the horse itself.
- boo ee (birdie, bird)
- kinkee (a dirty diaper): This came from his attempt to say the word stinky, the name we use in our home for a dirty diaper.
- eye bow (eye brow)
- read (Please read this book to me NOW!): Always used as a command.
- houf (house)
- key ho (keyhole)
- ah hoo (flower)
- by (bicycle): This replaced his previous word for bicycle, la la la.
- zjizji (scissors)
- my my my (Please let ME have it or let ME do it): Always said with a feeling of great urgency.
- duce (juice)
- oop (soup)
- moo moo (cassette tape): From one of his favorite tapes which contains the sound of a cow. In requesting that tape, he used that sound. That sound then came to refer to any cassette tape.
- haku (Huckle): A character in one of his books.
- hay (haystack)
- ma (moth)
- nail (snail)
- rice: A replacement for his word eehu when referring to rice. But eehu has continued as a part of his vocabulary, now with only its original meaning of Japanese seasoning.
- pakae (pancake)
- hot: His first adjective
- mimo my (my milk): His first possessive construction.
- ro (a dinner roll)
- ah choo (a sneeze)
- gee oh (cereal)
- bahkee (coffee)
- amen: What he always adds after we say grace at mealtime.
- wah doo (water): A replacement for his word ohwai that slowly gained acceptance.
- hah kah (helicopter)
- mouf (mouth)
- walk: The command, Take me for a walk outside.
- zisch (fish)
- zuzes (shoes)
- pray: The command, Let's pray so that we can begin eating.
We chose the end of December as the date to end the recording of his vocabulary for three reasons. First, it seemed to be a convenient time. Second, Colin was beginning to play with words and word sounds, repeating and changing what he heard around him in such a way as to make it difficult to know what he was using as a meaningful word, and what he was just using as an interesting sound. And third, the new words were beginning to appear at a rate that was hard to keep track of.
One comment needs to be made about the words in his vocabulary that have no linguistic relationship to their English counterpart. Colin has the proper English word in his listening vocabulary. We have tried to use the correct English words when speaking to him, and he hears them and understands them. But when he speaks, he translates them into his own language.
Roughly speaking, the process of language learning can be divided into two parts. The first part of this process deals with how the new language comes to the learner. In other words, it is concerned with the language environment that surrounds the student. The second part deals with how the learner comes to the new language. It is concerned with the different strategies that the student uses in his attempt to increase his language skills. With this division in mind, let us first look at a child's language learning environment, then take a look at the different strategies that he uses to help him learn the new language. Please note that in the following sections, I have presented my observations about Colin's language environment and learning strategies as if they were true of all children. I am assuming that Colin is a normal child, and that normal children are sufficiently alike in their language learning to be able to safely make this generalization. But the reader is warned that this is an assumption, and he is welcome to replace "a child" and "the child" with "this child" where he thinks it is more appropriate.