Acquiring verbs in a pro-drop language

My kids are young and are just beginning to speak in sentences. This in interesting, first because their linguistic development is bilingual, and secondly because I’ve never before had significant exposure to young children speaking a language other than English at this stage in their linguistic development. And now I’m getting a chance to observe something I’ve always wondered: when children learn a language with highly verbs, which forms do they learn first?

Romanian, like most Romance languages, inflects the verb for agreement in person and number in a variety of tenses. By way of illustration:

eu merg         I go
tu mergi        you go
el merge        he goes 
noi mergem      we go 
voi mergeţi     you (pl.) go 
ei merg         they go

Romanian is also pro-drop, meaning that pronouns are usually omitted when they occur as the subjects of sentences. So, given that a child learning Romanian hears a wide variety of verb forms with little way of distinguishing them at first (pronouns are one of the later syntactic features that small children acquire), which form do they use when they first start speaking?

The answer is: it depends, and it’s different for different verbs. This is not the answer that I was expecting. And what it depends on, as far as I can tell, is the form in which the child most often hears the verb, especially when its directed at him.

For example, my youngest always uses "want" in the 2sg form v(r)ei. This is because he most often hears the word used in questions like the following:

What do you want?
Ce vrei?

The word "give", on the other hand, is always dau, the 1sg form, because of the frequency of statements like "I’ll give you…" or "Do you want me to give you…?" (That second one involves an infinitive in English, but a finite verb in Romanian.)

A surprising number of verbs have been acquired in the imperative, most notably vino "come". The reasons for this should be obvious. Since the Romanian imperative is usually identical with the 3sg, there are a number of verbs in which it’s unclear which form has been acquired—and since the differences between imperative and indicative are certainly beyond him at this point, I doubt that the question is even answerable. He judges identifies imperatives solely by pragmatics, and he uses the imperative form even in clearly indicative contexts. Just today I heard Sebi vino used where the intended meaning was clearly "Sebi is coming", despite the morphologically imperative verb.

Most surprisingly, there’s a handful of verbs which have been acquired as a past participle, especially făcut "do" and dormit "sleep". This probably reflects the frequency with which these verbs are used in the past tense, since the normal Romanian past tense is synthetic, formed with the present-tense form of avea "to have" and the past participle. Sebi does sometimes use the auxiliary with the participle, but it seems very doubtful that he actually understands this as periphrasis at this point, as opposed to a fixed phrase.

Finally there is a single verb which has been acquired in the first person plural: rugăm "(we) pray". I find this adorable.

This is a small sample size (n=2), and only one language, but I would expect that results from other languages would be similar. What I wonder about, now, is how child language evolves in languages with really complex systems, such as polypersonal agreement, object incorporation, or other polysynthetic features.

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3 Comments

  1. I would be especially interested in how the Romanian-speaking parent talks to the kids. I’ve heard often that speech directed at infants/small children has a lot of tendencies that ring true accross language boundaries, but my experience hearing baby talk is limited to English and (very occasionally) Chinese.

    1. My wife and I talk to the kids in normal, complete Romanian sentences, not using any form of “baby talk” most of the time. This is somewhat specific to us, though, as there are forms of Romanian baby talk… we just don’t use it. The biggest concession we make to their language is when we code-switch to use an English word that they’re more familiar with.

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