Toddlers develop individualized rules for grammar

( -- Using advanced computer modeling and statistical analysis, a University of Texas at Austin linguistics professor has found that toddlers develop their own individual structures for using language that are very different from what we traditionally think of as grammar.

"Grammars have different forms in development," says Colin Bannard, assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics. "We shouldn't assume a child's grammar is anything like our traditional notion of what grammar is."

In a study released today in the journal , Bannard and Elena Lieven and Michael Tomasello, two colleagues working at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, developed a computer program to analyze 60 hours worth of conversations that two English-speaking toddlers — Brian and Annie — had with their parents after turning two and again after turning three.

The did not assume the children knew any of the basic rules of , such as the use of nouns and verbs. Instead, it used the toddlers' early conversations after each birthday to predict the structure of their subsequent conversations.

Rather than adhering to the kinds of rules for English linguists have identified, the toddlers developed their own basic formulas for speaking with slots into which they could put particular kinds of words. At age two, those formulas — which were different for each child — were found to predict the children's subsequent speech better than a more traditional grammar.

Many researchers have long believed that even young children's earliest language derives from an understanding of an abstract grammar that includes categories like nouns and verbs and a set of rules for combining them to produce sentences.

"How exactly a child learned these was considered something of a mystery and so it was declared by some that they must be innate," Bannard says. "However there is increasing evidence that children's path to grammar is a gradual and piecemeal process."

The findings also show that, between the ages of two and three, children learn to better understand and apply the adult rules of grammar, particularly by using verbs more flexibly.

This is the first major study of children's language development that uses advanced computer modeling to analyze, understand and predict children's utterances based on daily recordings of their language use.

"One thing that is very important about this work is Dr. Bannard's sophisticated use of computational and statistical techniques to analyze child language data," says Richard P. Meier, chair of the Linguistics Department.

Bannard hopes to use such methods more extensively.

"Here we have a technique for modeling grammar I'd like to apply to more children, to look at them more continuously from age two to age three, to apply rigorous statistics to learn what a child knows," Bannard says.

Provided by University of Texas at Austin (news : web)

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Oct 05, 2009
this might help explain why we find early language use so precocious: the part that is cute is because it is completely unexpected.

I asked my 4 year old, "Why are you small?" he said "Because I am." I asked, "Why are you 4?" he said, "Because I am." I asked why he had 5 toes and he said, "Because I do."; I asked why he had elbows and he, by now finding the game hilarious, said, "Because I DO!"

Then I asked, "Why do you say 'because I am' when I ask you why you are small, but you say 'because I do' when I ask why you have 5 toes?"

There was a long pause. He glanced up at me once or twice, and then he answered, "Because I do."

I would love to be privy to the linguistic computational analysis that was going on in his head.

Oct 06, 2009
I'm not all that great with languages, but my wife is barely competent at all :D....

When the mud monster started talking it was easier for me to learn her language than for her to learn mine. Drove my wife crazy....

The kid would say "glorz zeeze" or something equally incomprehensible, and I'd tell my wife she wants juice....

Eventually the little girl figured it out, but it was fun, and probably is related to the "teach 'em sign language" research. They can't get their vocal system to SAY things, but they've got the concept ("give me juice") hacked. I expect the kids learn to point & grunt, too :D , which probably explains why they're so good with a mouse when they get a little older....

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