Children learn to speak the language creatively

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When children learn to speak, they are not simply imitating their parents' speech. A study showed for the first time that toddlers learn the language by putting words together correctly grammatically.

Apparently, in childhood, people learn the language much more creatively and with greater certainty than scientists previously suspected. Children vary in speaking and combine words. Children in their second year of life do this not only because they imitate the speeches of their parents, but in a free manner, as researching linguists from the National Academy of Sciences in the USA report in the journal "Proceedings".

Various data archives examined
Is it called "a dog" or "the dog"? There are no grammatical objections to either variant. But the fact is that people prefer only one of two variants. This peculiarity was adopted by the language expert Charles Yang from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and his team, in which he analyzed how two-year-old children "use combinations of articles plus nouns". For this purpose, the researchers evaluated nine data archives of children who were currently learning to speak. These were compared to the "Brown Corpus", the text corpus of linguists, which contains around 500 texts. In this collection only about every fourth noun was accompanied by a definite and sometimes by an indefinite article.

The linguists found: "The majority of the two-year-old children freely choose an article". It would sound "absurd to assume that professional writers use a less systematic grammar than two-year-olds, but the language of the children fits the profile of a grammatical rule in which individual words can be linked independently," said Yang in his summary section of the study report.

Children combine and imitate
To support the findings, Yang provided another model of how children can combine articles and nouns by repeating a few coherent words from their parents. For this purpose, the research team took 1.1 million word combinations that the parents said in the presence of the children. However, this model could not produce many rich combinations of words as the children actually used. The team concluded: "Without a doubt, memory plays a role when children learn a language. Words and phrases are clearly recognizable examples. But the results show that memory cannot replace the combinatorial power of grammar."

Common research opinion contradicted
The result contradicts the common research opinion that children learn the language by parroting, similar to how monkeys learn the sign language. To confirm this view, Yang examined videos by the scientist Nim Chimpsky, who in 1970 learned about 125 applicable signs of sign language from animals. The primates used fewer so-called "two-character combinations" than would be purely statistically possible. As a result, Yang assumes that the monkeys "only imitated the signs and did not follow any real grammar". (sb)

Also read:
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Stuttering people are not stupid
A third of the children suffer from language problems
Recognize heard speech using brain waves

Image: Hans Baulig /

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