Just like most of the readers who left comments on my blog Wednesday, I am very interested in the way children change from cute, little babblers to people you can actually have a conversation with – and in next to no time, it seems. I suppose most parents are, but my interest was enhanced in 1991 when I studied second language acquisition at the University of Reading for a trimester. My youngest was 18-19 months old then and bang in the middle of learning her first language, mixed with the odd English word or phrase.
So please bear with me and read what I had to say about small language learners then, based on examples of my daughter´s utterances (translated into English of course, so no, she could not pronounce ´sweater´ in any language, but I think you´ll get the point).
The Child as an L1/L2 Learner.
1) Today children are no longer seen as little parrots that simply repeat their parents´ utterances automatically. Even very young children seem to be aware that language functions according to rules, and after a long period of silence they suddenly ´take off´ and make their first efforts at communicating. It is hard to prove that one-word utterances are grammatical in any way, but as children are able to answer questions at this stage (e.g. “What is this” – “cat”) and remember words they heard several days ago it is certainly more than repetition. Between the age of 18-24 months the child usually moves to the two-word stage, at which point it is possible to recognize some of the functions of the utterances (e.g. “want food”, “sweater there”, “more milk”). At the next stage the language almost explodes, and with utterances of 3-4 words or more it is possible to talk about a kind of developmental grammar, a grammar in its own right, governed by rules of syntax, inflections, intonation etc. The word order is often close to adult language, whereas word endings and pronouns are left out (“Mummy eat food”, “Andrew go walking”). The child´s grammar develops rapidly during the next few years, and more and more rules are changed until the child´s language structure is identical with an adult´s grammar. At the age of 5-6 years the child masters not only the rules of his/her language, but also most of the exceptions.
I´ll spare you the next three pages but just add my favourite example of a bilingual child´s expertise at juggling two languages. The clever little girl of c 30 months corrected her English-speaking father when he picked up one of her Danish books: “No, Daddy, you can´t read that one”.
I know that my daughter spoke fluently very early, but the interesting thing is that all the Danish articles on children´s language acquisition I have checked confirm my claim: at the age of 18-24 months most children move on to the two-word stage. For British children it seems to be 18-30 months, however. (I doubt that there is this difference, the surveys may just be older).
So even though S.J. Bolton says so, it is impossible for me to see Millie as a two-year-old girl. My view is exactly the same as Laura´s (see Wednesday´s comments), especially as Millie also staggers around like someone who has learnt to walk recently. No, children don´t do that for a whole year – after 2-3 months they walk around as if they had never done anything else 🙂