Stages of Language Development: First Words, Multiple Word Utterances, Grammatical Morphemes (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Grammatical Morphemes: Fleshing Out the Telegram

Although the particulars of this stage will, of course, vary from one language to another, evidence from children learning English suggests that the grammatical morphemes of a language are learned in a fixed order. Brown (1973) studied the acquisition of fourteen grammatical morphemes in English and found, for example, that children learned the -ing of the present progressive (jumping) before they learned the plural of nouns; they learned plurals and possessives of nouns before they learned the articles (the, a); and they learned articles before they learned the regular past tense of verbs. Helping verbs were far down the list. He also found that children learned some irregular past tense forms, like broke and went, before they learned the regular ones.

It is important to understand what children are actually learning when they begin to produce grammatical morphemes. Are they merely adding more vocabulary to their stock of words, cookies alongside of cookie? The answer to this question emerges when we look at children’s overregularizations. That is, children will use regular morphology in places where the adult language requires irregular morphology. We are all familiar with children’s foots, comed, holded, and mouses, for example. It is unlikely that children hear these overregularized forms spoken by the adults around them; rather, they apply a rule that they have gleaned from the language they hear long before they learn that certain words are irregular in their morphology.

The fact that children apply morphological rules productively can be verified by a test devised by Jean Berko (1958), known as the wug test. In this type of experiment, children are shown pictures that are described using nonsense words, such as the noun wug. A child might be shown a picture of one of these and then be asked to describe a picture with two. If the child says they are two wugs, then we know he/she has learned the rule for making plurals, since no adult has ever said wugs to the child before. Similarly, the rule for forming the past tense of verbs might be tested by showing a picture of a man blicking and then asking what the man did yesterday. If the child says he blicked, we know a rule is being applied.

These rules are learned by children, becoming part of their internalized grammars of their language, but the rules are not taught to them. Adults know the rules, of course, or they would not be able to produce the correct morphology. But their knowledge is not conscious. And even if you do know the rules in some conscious way (as you now do), you would not be able to teach them to a preschooler. Think, for example, about how you might teach the distribution of the allomorphs of the plural or the past tense using vocabulary that a preschooler would understand.

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