LNG 201/ENGL 202
Prof. G. Steinberg
Language Acquisition

Click here for a web-based PowerPoint presentation on language acquisition.

One of the most amazing examples of the uniformity of language acquisition is the order in which children acqure certain grammatical constructions in English.  There are 14 grammatical structures that children master in essentially the same order with very little variation.  For our purposes, a child is considered to have mastered a construction if the child uses the construction correctly 90% of the time.

NOTE:  Children acquire these constructions in the same order but not at the same speed.  Some children race through the list in a matter of three months; others take more than a year.  Also, children often experiment with constructions long before they master them.  So, a child might be experimenting with #10, but have only truly mastered #1 or #2.  The child will still generally master the constructions in the expected order.  Keep in mind too that children sometimes learn certain constructions as single words (e.g., "That's" as in "That's mine" or "That's pretty").  In such cases, the child has not mastered #13 but is merely using what to the child is a single word.  In addition, children generally master #5 in the proper sequence, but when they master #9, they usually regress with respect to #5 and begin forming irregular past tense verbs according to the rule for regular past tense verbs (e.g., eated).

Acquisition Order of Select Grammatical Constructions in English

  1. Present progressive verb (the "-ing" form) -- (is) playing, (was) singing

  2. One of the prepositions in or on

  3. The other preposition (in or on)

  4. Regular noun plural -- toys, cats, dishes

  5. Irregular past tense verbs --  came, fell, saw, hurt

  6. Possessive noun -- Daddy's, doggie's

  7. Uncontractible copula -- Here I am

  8. Articles -- a and the

  9. Regular past tense verbs -- played, washed, wanted

  10. Regular third person singular present tense verbs -- sees, wants, washes

  11. Irregular third person singular present tense verbs -- does, has

  12. Uncontractible auxiliary -- He was eating

  13. Contractible copula -- That's mine, What's that?

  14. Contractible auxiliary -- He's crying

Consider the following utterances.  At what stage of language development does the child appear to be?

Jimmy swim.
Ken book.
Daddy work.
Push baby.
Mommy read.

Now, consider the following utterances.  Which grammatical constructions has the child definitely mastered?  Which grammatical constructions are still a problem?

Where my blanket?
Go right here, Mommy?
Spilling over!
Here, go here.
No, that mine.
Dinosaur say gronk.
There more.

Now, consider the following utterances.  Which grammatical constructions have been mastered and which have not?

Mine name Krista.
Last name Pegit.
Tape right there.
Here Daddy book.
Iím do it.  [ =  I'll do it.]
He went outside.
Open a gate, please.
Grammaís house.
Smell flowers.
Shoes on.
Wee boy fell down.

Thatís mines ball.


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