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On one of the stages of language acquisition in children

Here’s something else for you from Making Sense by David Crystal, about what children acquire in a language after they have mastered its “basic” grammar.

I find it especially interesting because it’s a feature of grammar that’s not so often mentioned (unlike verb tenses, or building sentences or using articles). But without this feature we wouldn’t be able to speak for long or tell engaging stories.

Here we go.

[Suzie is one of the children whose language acquisition the author describes in the book to present the process more as a story rather than just facts. Highlights in bold are mine, in italics by the author]

“People often say that children have completed the learning of the grammar of their language by the time they go to school, around the age of five. And on the surface it would seem the case. Suzie still had occasional problems with irregular forms at age four… but a year later these had disappeared. So now she was coming out with sentences like this:

I’m not scared of ghosts and monsters like Scooby Doo is, cos they’re on the telly, and he’s got lots of friends to help him.

But if we start to look more carefully at how Suzie is talking… there are quite a few aspects of grammar that she hasn’t tried to use at all. We can see this if we compare her sentences to those an adult would use when telling a story. In particular, adults link their sentences using a much wider variety of connecting words than and and cos, such as however, moreover, unfortunately, nevertheless, and as a matter of factSuzie used none of these at age five.

She started trying some of them out soon after. […] She would come out with a sentence that, on the surface, sounded fine. But when you examined the situation carefully, you could tell that she hadn’t fully understood the way English grammar worked. […] For example it took her some time to work out the subtle ways in which because is used. Sometimes she got it right:

You shouldn’t throw rocks, because that will break windows.

Sometimes she got it wrong:

It’s raining because the flowers are growing.

With examples like this it’s clear that her production – her ability to produce a grammatically correct sentence – is running ahead of her comprehension.


Pronouns are another way to show sentence connection. A written sentence such as It was climbing up a tree assumes that you know what it refers to… Similarly, if we see Mary found the box in the corner, the use of the assumes that we know which box we’re talking about. […]

Sometimes more than one word with a connective function occurs in a sentence. What would you make of someone saying But she did so too? This actually refers back to previous sentences in four different ways: the but expresses a contrast with something previously said; the she refers back to someone already mentioned; the did so refers to an action already mentioned; and the too suggests that someone else has done the same action. We need the context to make sense of it all. […]

It takes children several years to master all these connectives in speech. Then, when they get to school, they have to learn to use them all over again in writing, in quite a short time, and that’s when problems arise. When she was about seven, Suzie wrote a story which began like this:

Once upon a time there was a king who lived in a castle with his son. He was handsome…

From the writer’s point of view, there was no problem: Suzie knew who was handsome. But from the reader’s point of view, there was ambiguity. So the teacher marking her story red-circled the he, and wrote a question in the margin: ‘who?’. I remember having to explain why to Suzie, who couldn’t see anything wrong with it. ‘If you didn’t know who was handsome, you could just have asked me,’ she said. We spent quite a while talking about why this wasn’t really possible in a book”.

Now, isn’t it sweet, Suzie’s reply? “you could just have asked me” =) Every time I read this I can’t stop smiling (and I’ve read it 5 times at least already).

Of course, Russian and English are languages of different grammatical structure, but have you noticed anything similar? And did you know that it takes children so long to learn to use connectives in their speech and writing? I didn’t.

If you have something to share, I’ll be delighted to read about it (as I don’t have any children around to observe this)

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

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