Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Language helps you find out just how weird kids are

My daughter M, my wife, and I were visiting family on the east coast about a month ago. One night, M was whining a little bit before bedtime, and after some investigation, my wife figured out that M's pajamas – a new lighter-weight set that we brought because the weather was still hot – were bothering her. The following dialogue ensued:
Mom: "are your pajamas bothering you?"
M: "yah."
Mom: "are they hurting you, sweetie?"
M: "yaaah!"
Mom: "where do they hurt you?"
M: "'jamas hurt mine face!"
Now I don't know where M went wrong in this exchange – does she not understand "pajamas," "hurt," or "face," or does she just think that hurting your face is the ultimate insult? – but there's clearly something different in her understanding of the situation than we expected. One more example, from when I returned from a trip to the mountains last week ("dada go woods!"):
M: "my go woods see dove!"
me: "yeah? you want to see a dove?"
M: "see dove in my ear!"
me: "in your ear?"
M: "dove go in my ear go to sleep."
me: "really?"
M: "dove going to bed."
M is now officially a two-year-old (26 months), and it's been a while since I wrote about her – in part because I am realizing as I teach her the ABCs that it won't be that long before she can read what I write. But these exchanges made me think about two things. First, her understanding of the world, though amazing, is still very different then mine (there are many other examples besides the painful pajamas and the dove in her ear). And second, it's her rapidly-growing ability with language that allows her to reveal these differences.

Children spend a short, fascinating time in what's been called the "two-word stage." There was an interesting discussion of this stage on the CHILDES listserv recently; whatever your theoretical take, it's clear that children's early productions are fragmentary and omit more than they include. Because of these omissions, this kind of language requires the listener to fill in the gaps. If a child says "go store," she could be saying that she wants to go to the store, or commanding you to go to the store. If she says "my spill," you have to figure out what it is she just spilled (or wants permission to spill).

Since the listener plays such a big role in understanding early language productions, they are plausible by definition. There's almost no way for the child to express a truly weird sentiment, because the adult listener will tend to fill in the gaps in the utterance with plausible materials. (This can be quite frustrating for a child who really wants to say something weird.) M's language, in contrast, is now at the stage where she can express much more complex meanings, albeit with significant grammatical errors. So in some sense, this is the first chance I've had to find out just how weird her view of the world really is.

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