My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Mailbox: Little Kid's Grammar

Check out our snazzy new Mailbox picture!
No seriously, check it out!
My kid is talking wrong!

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I'll try to answer anything that is peripherally about writing, but my expertise is limited.]    

Just a quickie today since yesterday unsupportive girlfriend kicked open my door and said, "The Hall of Rectitude isn't going to clean itself." I tried to explain about the baby and how the dishes might pile up for two or even three days, but she was having none of it, and since she was wearing Dr. Cybertrobotic's power armor (well, the left arm anyway), I wasn't about to get into a fight.

Wendy asks:

I have a grammar issue I am working on and I am curious how you would (will) tackle it. I have a twenty month old whose vocabulary is growing by the minute (or so it seems.) One interesting issue popping up is the difference between first person and second person personal pronouns. He points at himself and says "you" and then at me and says "me" because that is what I say. I think he would be quickly distracted by the nearest shiny object if I tried to explain "you are me to you and I am you to you." Even I want to say "look, shiny!" and change the subject when I repeat that sentence out loud. I know he will get it in time but I am curious what your thoughts are. If anyone else has read this far and would like to add your two cents, please do. Thanks :)

My Reply:

I'm going to take a crack at this even though it's a little more of a language acquisition question than one of grammar in the strictest sense. This stuff gives me a nerd-boner, and I did some research before writing this reply, but it's not like I'm well studied or have a PhD in Kidtalkology. So just please keep in mind that I am neither a linguist nor an early childhood education expert; this just coming from as much as I know about either, and others can feel free to check me.

The interesting thing is that, in a way, it is actually impossible for a child to make a grammar mistake...at least in the way we tend to think of them. Of course they can say things incorrectly--they do that all the time much to our twisted, sadistic amusement. But they are either repeating exactly what someone around them said--in which case it's not their error. Or, they are extrapolating a rule they do know into an irregular situation. (Like saying that the plural of foot is "foots" or something.) While this is technically true of most adults as well (basically the reason we have dialects and local colloquialisms) there is more a sense that adults should "know better."

From what I know about this subject--which I want to reiterate is limited--I'm pretty sure there are a couple of different things going on. One is that a very young child's sense of the world as separate from themselves is completely different than adults. Adults (unless they're narcissistic jerkoffs who can't even walk past a window without checking themselves out in the reflection) have a sense that other people exist and have egos similar to their own. But kids don't just act self-centered; they are self-centered. That's not because they're all little assholes (even though they are), but because their brains are still developing. The neural pathways that understand the world around them are still in the formative stage. That's why peekaboo is so exciting to babies. As far as their little brains are able to grasp, you are literally disappearing and reappearing--they don't "get" that you keep existing when you're behind the blanket. Early lingual kids are a bit further along in this development, but they're still wrapping their heads around it. So the idea of different pronouns might be extra confusing. (I mean why would you need a pronoun that doesn't have to do with him? Why would a word change when used by someone else. There are no other people.  That's nonsense!)

The second thing has more to do with how you're using the words. It's like that old joke from Burns and Allen. (George: "Say goodnight, Gracie." Gracie: "Goodnight Gracie.") If you call yourself "I" and him "you" he's going to assume that he is "you" and you are "I." [It's actually amazing how logical small children can be.] It'll take a little while to parse that those pronouns float depending on who is using them.  Actually, you don't need to correct him at all, and from what I've read that might be kind of frustrating and confusing. Basically he's going to get it from assimilation not being "taught." (Human brains can't be "taught" language in the traditional sense until we are about 4 or 5--or basically around the time we start reading.) If you just keep speaking correctly around him, he'll get it. From what research I did, the phase usually only lasts a couple of months, at most, so if you just keep talking normally, he should get it without you really having to stop and teach him directly.

Hope that answers your question, Wendy!


  1. Up until recently we've referred to ourselves in the third person when speaking to our 2 year old. So it was, "mommy wants you to take a bath " or "bring that to daddy". With everyone else we talked normally. Suprisingly he gets the whole me, I, you thing.
    Me: you are adorable!
    Doc: no. I Doc.