In my previous posts about toddler language acquisition, I’ve largely talked about my younger child, who is currently aged two-and-a-half. You might think this is because my older child, aged four-and-a-half, has already passed most of the more interesting milestones.

This is the opposite of the truth.

Our oldest son Ciprian has had severe language acquisition delays, for reasons that no one knows. For whatever reason, he never passed the linguistic level of a typical two year old, knowing about two dozen single words, and that’s all. He never progressed to simple two-word sentences, he acquired new words very slowly if at all, and his pronunciation remained idiosyncratic and difficult to understand. This was combined with a variety of difficult behavior issues, such as an obsession with running water (he would turn on the water in the sink and watch it for hours if we’d let him), and self-harming when he was frustrated or angry.

It’s hard to overestimate how frustrating this was. When he wanted something, Ciprian would simply shout "Give give give" over and over, and you would have to guess what he wanted from context. (He also didn’t know how to point to request things, an essential pre-linguistic skill that he never mastered.) If you couldn’t figure it out, then you had to prepare yourself for a bout of screaming and self-harming.

Earlier this year, shortly before his fourth birthday, we said enough was enough and sought help from his pediatrician, and then the child psychologist that she referred us to. Unfortunately, all we got was a bunch of negatives: he isn’t autistic, his hearing is fine, and he isn’t cognitively impaired. The technical term they deployed was just "developmentally delayed", without any suggestion of the reason. This was less than encouraging. Eventually, the best thing we could do was just to enroll him in a preschool to give him more opportunities for stimulation, and talk to the school district about special education. The local district offers pre-K special education for qualifying students, and after their assessment they quickly assigned him a speech therapist and an early childhood specialist.

This was the best thing we’ve ever done for Ciprian.

It’s now six months later. While it would be great to say that things changed overnight, the reality is that we saw only marginal improvements for the first several months. His self-harming behavior decreased and his overall mood improved, but we only saw incremental additions to his vocabulary and no significant breakthroughs in his overall language. That was, until about six weeks ago, when for some reason the floodgates opened.

It feels like his vocabulary has doubled or tripled. He’s added a variety of English and Romanian words, and has started to use them more appropriately, where before he would indiscriminately apply the few words he used to virtually everything, making it very difficult to discern what he actually wanted. He’s become scrupulously polite, always saying "please" and "thank you" when making requests, in both English and Romanian. But most importantly, he’s started actually using sentences. Now, he actually says "I want cookie" when he wants something, and life is good.

His sentences aren’t grammatical yet. For the most part they’re two- and three-word collocations. And there’s still a long ways to go—he isn’t remotely like a normal four-year-old yet, and his little brother is significantly ahead of him. But for the first time in years, it feels like we’re actually getting somewhere.

So what am I thankful for this year? I’m thankful for a fifty-item vocabulary, for two-word sentences, and for my awesome kid Ciprian.

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Time for another toddler language update! Today’s topic: gender agreement and past tenses.

For the most part, my younger son doesn’t exhibit have any gender agreement yet. He has only a handful of adjectives, and for they’re fixed forms, usually the masculine. However, there’s one word that he has acquired in the feminine form: obosită "tired".(The reason for this acquisition is that the word is most often applied to his mother. Yes, that sounds like a bad joke, but it’s true.)

This leads to some amusing mismatches, as when he says of himself Sebi obosită ("Sebi is tired [fsg]"), or when he talks about the horses near our house and says Cai obosită ("The horses [mpl] are tired [fsg]"). We do usually correct him when he makes mistakes of this sort, but as you might expect this isn’t terribly effective.

The other exciting development is that Sebi appears to be acquiring (slowly) the past tense. We have heard him occasionally using past-tense forms over the past few weeks, but it seemed likely that those were fixed forms. Today, however, I heard him correctly and appropriately contrast the present and past of a ploua "to rain". When returning to the car after preschool it was raining, and he repeated after me plouă! ("It’s raining!"). This is a word that he’s used frequently, but once we reached the car he pointed to the window and said A plouat geam ("It rained [on] the window"). This is the first time I’ve ever heard him switch from present to past tense on a verb, and a ploua is not a verb that we use most often in the past tense. So I don’t think this is something that he acquired as a fixed form, but rather appears to be him accurately applying regular past-tense morphology.

This acquisition is still intermittent, at best, and I expect it’ll be some time before he regularly uses any past tense, regular or irregular. But it is a fun milestone.

My wife always said that I should keep a log of some sort about my kids linguistic development. And while I haven’t kept a detailed log, here I am blogging about it for the second week in a row.

So: pronouns. As mentioned before, proper use of pronouns is something that children acquire late, but partial use of pronouns develops quite a bit before that. What’s interesting here is the differing rates at which English and Romanian pronouns have been acquired. Because Romanian is pro-drop, pronouns are relatively uncommon in Romanian speech. For this reason, Sebi already uses the English pronoun I fairly consistently, but has not acquired any Romanian pronouns at all. He even mixes the two languages:

I făcut caca.
I went poopy.

The only thing approaching a Romanian pronoun that either child uses is the syllable [tu:], which represents an interesting conflation of the Romanian pronoun tu (you, sg.) and the English word too. The reason for the conflation is that both English and Romanian tend to locate these words at the end of utterances, in similar contexts, and with both words bearing the prosodic stress:

Do you want some, **too**?
Vrei şi **tu**? (Lit. "Want also you?")

Because of this coincidence, both children use the syllable [tu:] with a variety of meanings, including "me, too," "also," and "let me do it." As I noted with the discussion of verb inflection, the kids tend to use second-person forms with first-person meanings, based on what they most often hear.

Despite these few examples of confusion between the two languages, the kids already seem to have a good understanding of the differences between the languages and the contexts in which each is used. Their teachers at preschool say that they never hear the boys using Romanian words at school, and at home they seem to switch effortlessly into Romanian. They have even begun to exhibit some awareness of translation, the notion of a statement in English having an equivalent in Romanian and vice-versa. I’d say that this portends good things.

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.