ED209 revision: the development of children’s understanding of grammar

The development of children’s understanding of grammar kicks off with a run-through of the definitions of some linguistic terminology before moving on to look at the development of spoken language, learning word endings and finally learning word order. Obviously this whole chapter is very much English-specific.

There’s not a whole lot of terminology but I suspect it would be quite confusing if you weren’t from a linguistic background. Phonology is the structure of speech sounds. Grammar is broken into morphology (how words are formed eg through compounding) and syntax (the structure of sentences). The chapter on first words looked at studies that showed when children recognised the specific phonology structure of their own language. Inflections (word endings) aren’t used a whole lot in English outside the likes of “-ed” and “-ing” endings.

Chomsky is the main researcher in this area and has the view that children have an inate understanding (his language acquisition device). They can understand all languages because their is a universal grammar which they adapt to their native language. Pinker on the other hand feels that children deduce the rules for themselves.

The development of spoken language proceeds through a number of phases. One word utterances are common early in the second year with two-word utterances coming around 21 months (just before the vocabulary spurt). In the early stages they speak in telegraphic speech ie with no elements of grammar such as link words. By the age of 4 the various elements of grammar have been learnt.

Learning about word endings has two basic theories. The dual route theory of Pinker & Prince considers that there is both a rule system (eg “add S for plural”) and a memory system (for irregularities). The single route theory of Rumelhart & McClelland comes from the neural network studies. There seems to be more evidence in support of the single route model through examination of the types of errors which children make (eg the occasional production of irregular inflections for regular words supports the single route model) and how they explain generalisation of inflections to new words. Marchman looked at this. Studies of the acquisition of German which has lots of regular inflections by Szagun tend to support the single route model. Studies by Pinker of deveopmental disorders could support the dual route model but then they also support the single route one.

Learning about word order seems quite an interesting field. As Brown & Hanlon found, parents rarely correct their children’s grammatical mistakes. Chomsky argued from this that they needed to rely on inate linguistic knowledge (his universal grammar). Tomasello felt that children gradually built up grammatical knowledge through learning (eg about nouns and verbs). Studies in this area are extremely time consuming as most diary studies are. Elman looking at computer simulations found that starting with simpler grammatical structures and working up worked well which implies that using “motherese” (child directed speech) is a good thing (but note that this isn’t used universally).

Quite a nice chapter to revise though that simplicity might mean more complex questions. Only two more chapters to go: executive functions and understanding minds which, hopefully, I’ll get to over the course of today. So far, it looks like I’m going to be close to achieving my target of getting the revision chapters down to ten pages (which’ll be appearing as a PDF on the site when I’ve completed them all).

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