Connie Lai Observation of Hau Hau's Language


Hau Hau,( a two-year-old Chinese boy, ) 1* starts the (two-word) 2* stage in his early language. The vocabulary he uses is about fifty words. The sum of words he can speak out is few so very often he has to add gestures to help him express what he wants and what events have happened to him.  Hau Hau's pronunciation is not so good as ours, but he will try to correct his own pronunciation when we correct him. Maybe it is because his vocal tract is not well-developed for him to pronounce the same sound as adults pronounce, sometimes he will give up trying the sounds of words adults pronounce after he tries many times but still fails to pronounce it. He has good comprehension about space, names of objects and some questioning sentences adults say to him, though sometimes he can not say the words or the sentence. The following I am going to divide into two parts to discuss my observation. One is how Hau Hau talks, and the other is how his parents, his babysitter, and we talk to him.

1*(Teacher's comment: In 5 reports, Hau-hau has 3 different ages--18 months, 2 years, and 26 months)

2*(Teacher's comment: two-word or two-morpheme?)


  1. How Hau Hau talks:
    1. Words : All the words Hau Hau can speak out are around fifty. (Most of the words he says are the name of objects around him and his environment like cars, buses, balls, dogs, cats, Papa, Mama, and so on.)1* Look at the chart below, it is obvious that he likes to pay attention to the ends of words and reduplicates the sound of word ending like other children (Operation Principle D). To my surprise, Hau Hau can pronounce words which are more than one syllable well. For example, he can say( tzuo4 guo3 guo3 chi4 che1 ((1) ||公共汽車 (2)), gueng1 yuan2 wan2 (公園 (1) ||(2)))2*, (ji4 cheng2 che1 (計程車),)3* and wo3 yao4 he1 (我要喝) which consist of at least three syllables.

1*(Teacher's comment: Mainly nouns?)

2*(Teacher's comment: Good examples of  two-word utterances.)

3*(Teacher's comment: 3 morphemes, but probably we should consider it one word)


Words Hau Hau's utterance Words Hau Hau's utterance
洗澡 tzau3 tzau2 拖鞋 tuo1 tuo1
汽車 che1 che1; je1 je1; ji4 che1 火車 huo3 je1
皮球 chiou3 chiou2 jiou4
bên4 bên4 養樂多 duo1 duo1
ji1 ji1 yu3
yu2 牛奶 ni1 ni1 ; nie1 nie1
gou3 gou2 chueng3 chueng2
mau1 打開 da3 ; kai1 kai1 ; dai1 dai1
兔子 du4 bau3 bau2 那邊 bie1 bie1
2 西瓜 ding1 ba1; ding1ding1
juei3 大象 da4 jiang4
叔叔 shu3 shu2 長頸鹿 lu4
阿姨 yi2 蜘蛛 de1 du1
chian2 去公園玩 gueng1 yüan3 yüan2 ; wan2 gueng1 yüan2
姊姊 jie3 jie2 坐公共汽車 tzuo4 gou3 gou3 chi4 che1
飛機 ji1 ji1 找洪媽媽 jau3 hueng2 ma3 ma1
這個 je4 ge5 坐高翹 tzuo4 gau1 gau1
一樣 yi2 yang4 畫圈圈 chiuan1 chiuan1
男娃娃 yüan3 yüan2 畫三角形 san1 shing2
女娃娃 mei3 mei2 溜滑梯 ti1 ti1
媽媽 ma1 ma1  畫汽車 hua4 ji4 che1
爸爸 ba1 ba1 上廁所 bian4 bian4
腳踏車 jiau3 da je1 救火車 jiou4 huo3 che1
椅子 yi3 yi2 ; ji3 ji2  計程車 ji4 cheng2 che1
鞋子 shie3 shie2 吃飯 fan4 fan4


  1. Sounds: Hau Hau's pronunciation of words is all right. The tone he likes to use is the second and third tone. This situation is especially obvious when he reduplicates the word endings which are the second or the third tone in adults' utterances. ( Hau Hau tends to pronounce the third tone in the first word of reduplication and the second tone in the second word of reduplication such as shu3 shu2 (叔叔), gou3 gou2 (狗狗), chueng3 chueng2 (蟲蟲), tzau3 tzau2 (澡澡), chiou3 chiou2 (球球) and so on. ) 1*(Besides, Hau Hau will pronounce some strange sounds which are not the pronunciation of words. For example, when Hau Hau sees some objects he doesn't know or something he wants to get but can't pronounce the name, he will utter a sound like ge5 () with a rising tone when asking a name and with a falling tone when requiring for an object. ) 2* Other creative sounds are shown below .

1*(Teacher's comment: Good observing)

2*(Teacher's comment: This is an interesting strategy.)


Utterance The action Hau Hau is doing
wu2 When he looks at  wild beasts in  pictures
ba4 da4  When he looks at a lion in a picture and calls it
kiang4 When cars crash *
o3 yi1 o3 yi1 His toy ambulance is running

*(Teacher's comments: Could this be a Chinese baby talk word? Danny learned something very similar for sword fighting from the boys at the babysitter's house)

  1. Overextension and underextension : From Hau Hau's utterance, I can't find any underextension, but only overextension. Hau Hau's overextension is similar to what our textbooks have shown. Hau Hau calls all kinds of coins “chian2” (), all circular shapes “chiou3 chiou2” (球球). And when he sees a bee's abdomen in a picture, he takes out his toy car, puts it besides the bee, points to the bee's abdomen with his little finger and says “yi2 yang4" (一樣). These three utterances are the overextension that I can find in his language.

(Teacher's comment: One might expect to find more.)

  1. Gestures and meanings : The words Hau Hau can speak out are very few, so he often adds gestures to help himself express the information he wants to convey to his listeners.

D1: asserting and requesting with words

(Teacher's comment: And gestures?)


Speech act Utterance Context
Assertion ba4 ba1 (ma4 ma1) + look

tang2 + look

Looking at his father (mother)

Looking at chocolate

Request yi2, kei1 + pat

ma1 ma1 + reach 

ge5 + reach

ge5 + point

ba4 ba5 + point

Patting a candy box

Reaching toward any object desired 

Reaching toward any object desired

Pointing at some thing

Pointing at his toy ambulance

“One major function of the adults'  gestures, and of the child's, is to capture the attention of the other —the 'listener' — and then focus it on a particular object or event. . . .For example, a child will point at something and then turn to check that his mother is looking in the right direction. If she isn't he will try to attract her attention by tugging at her hand, for example, and then point again. . . .Children use other gestures besides pointing for communication. For instance, they commonly use openhanded reaching or grasping gestures to signal that they want something. These reaching gestures are often accompanied by the child's looking alternatively at what he wants and his adult 'listener.'  Children also use more specific gestures or combinations of gestures to show what they want . . . .  children's gestures seem to fall into two groups:  first, they use pointing gestures that seem to communicate 'Look at X' or 'Tell me about X'. . . .  Second, children use reaching gestures that seem to communicate 'Give me X' or 'Let me see (touch, play with) X'” (C&C 313).
    When Hau Hau wants to get some object, first he will call the name of a listener, looks at his/her face, and after he makes sure that the listener is listening to him, then he will reach his hand toward the object he desires. The openhanded reaching or grasping gestures mean he wants the object he is reaching for. In other words, he conveys to the listeners the information “Give me X” when he can not say the word.
    "Ge5” () is the word he uses in two different ways. When he says “ge5” with grasping gesture, that means he wants to get “this” (這個) object. But when he says “ge5” in a rising tone and with pointing gesture, that means he doesn't know the name of the object. After he tries many times to open the candy box but still can't open it, he will tug any adult's hand, pat the cover of the box and say “kei1” ().
    The second time when our group members went to visit him,  an interesting thing happened.  While we were talking to Hau Hau's mother, Hau Hau fell down in the kitchen and hurt his foot. He didn't cry but tugged Adeline and me to the kitchen and pointed at one spot on the floor of the kitchen. We didn't know what he tried to say so we asked “Hau Hau, tze3 mou5 le5?” (Hau Hau, what is the matter?). Maybe he didn't know how to describe his situation, so he left us alone and went to his room to find something. After he took out a bottle of ointment, handed it to us, showed us the wound on his foot, and said “je4 li3” (here), we understood the whole information he wanted to convey to us. * That was he fell down at  that spot in the  kitchen and he asked us to put ointment on for him. A cute guy!
    Usually his gestures are accompanied by his one or two-word utterance to convey his information he can not say in a complete sentence. If we (the listeners) have basic knowledge about his gestures and utterance, it won't be hard to understand what the meanings are that Hau Hau tries to say. The following chart is a list of Hau Hau's other combinations of gestures and meanings.

*(Teacher's comment: Here we can see clearly what a hard time small children have in communicating!)



Utterance Gesture Meaning
我要喝;爸爸, Pointing to himself Wants to drink water, tea, or coffee
爸爸 Pointing to his father's clothes Those are Father's clothes
媽媽 Pointing to his bike His mother bought him the bike
怕怕 pa4 pa4 Smashes the animals on the picture and turns to the next page He is afraid of those wild beasts and doesn't want to see them
  With his hands cover his face and turn the album to the next page He feels embarrassed when he looks at his naked body in the photographs and doesn't want us to see them
Bye-bye Waving his hand or giving us a flying kiss Means good-bye
  Tugging us hand when we are going to leave Doesn't want us to leave

(Teacher's comment: Good observation of gestures-This is something we need to pay more attention to, beginning right from the earliest adult-child interactions)


  1. Comprehension : Hau Hau has good comprehension about locations, some yes/no questions, some wh-questions, orders, and the difference between objects in pictures and real things.
  1. *Location: Hau Hau seems to have good comprehension about spatial concept. As we commanded him to put a boy doll into/on a box, or asked him to take a boy doll out of a box,( he could do as we said and seldom made mistakes.) 1*To our group members’ surprise, he could put things together and take them apart as we commanded, not just put things together as our textbook said (C&C 504).( I think Hau Hau doesn't have a clear concept about the spatial relationships of 前面 (in front of), 上方 (above) and 下面 (under) because he often put his object into a container when we asked him to put his object in front of/above/under a container.) 2*

*(Teacher's comment:  For all these points, it's important to explain just how you tested these things, so we can be sure he wasn't doing what he would have done even if you hadn't said anything.)

1*(Teacher's comment: Move one object toword another? Move two objects apart, away from each other?)

2*(Teacher's comment: So, probably he's relying on Rule 1 (C+C 503)? )

  1. Dimensional relations : Children like to have more and big objects, and Hau Hau is no exception, too. As Hau Hau's mother requested him to find us two small batteries, he took out one big battery and said “da4 da4” (大大). We said we just need small batteries, but he gave us a big battery. The same situation also occurred when we asked him which was more, two or one;  he often took two batteries instead of one battery. His preference for big and more matches the principle written in our textbook which said that children seemed to understand the positive terms (C&C 505).   To my observation, Hau Hau seemed that he didn't know the words “high” and “low.” When I asked Hau Hau, “na3 yi2 ge5 ren2 bi3 jiau4 gau1, yi2 hai2 sh4 Hau4 Hau4?” (Which one is taller, Aunt ot Hau Hau?), he stared at me puzzled. I gestured a high and low position to him, but his reaction was the same —no reaction.

(Teacher's comments: Maybe you should have asked him who was bigger (or even more).)

  1. Yes/no questions:   When we asked Hau Hau yes/no questions like “yu3 mei2 yu3 chiou3 chiou2 ?” (Do you have a ball?), he would utter yu3 () if the answer was positive. He will utter positive answers like hau3 (), sh4 (), guai1 (), and so on, but he won't utter a word if the answer is negative, like bu2 yiau4 (不要) and mei2 yiou3 (沒有). The way he denied and refused was shaking his head, running away, or slapping you angrily. When the listener said wrong names of objects or said something bad about him, he would slap the listener as a expression of rejection. Sometimes Hau Hau also didn't answer the positive answers but did what he wanted to do. For example, Hau Hau stretched out his foot to let his mother put on shoes for him when his mother asked “你要不要穿鞋鞋?”

(Teacher's comment: Any possible explanation here?)

  1. Wh-questions : Hau Hau understood the meaning of what, where and who questions, though he often couldn't say it. But he didn't understand what the questioner was asking when the questioner asked when, why and how questions. It seemed Hau Hau still needed time * to learn when, why and how questions. Although Hau Hau could answer what, where, who questions well, sometimes he also made mistakes. For instance, when Hau Hau's mother asked him, “你的鞋鞋呢?” (Where are your shoes?), Hau Hau answered an unrelated answer, “我拖拖.”

*(Teacher's comment: Why would when, why, how require more time?)



The questioner Hau Hau's action/utterance
這是什麼? (pointing)






pointing to his feet

searching in his toy box

biting his mother

Mama, pointing to his mother


  1. Order: Hau Hau understands most of our commands and does them well. Usually he can do as we command him to do such as 坐下, 站起來, 去尿尿, 吃飯, 穿鞋鞋, 拿糖糖給阿姨吃, and so on.
  1. Hypothetical sentences : Hau Hau's comprehension about the hypothetical sentences which adults assert to him limits on the present time. From the chart below, we see Hau Hau's reaction to his mother's hypothetical sentences is uttering the main words he desires to do now.


Hypothetical sentences Hau Hau's reaction
假如浩浩把飯吃完,姨就帶你到公園玩 Puts on his shoes and says 玩公園
浩浩乖!等一下Danny就會來 Running to the door+saying Danny
把飯吃完,我們再去找洪媽媽 Says 找洪媽媽


  1. Distinguishing ability:   I am not sure how well Hau Hau can distinguish the real things from objects in pictures. Our group members showed him some pictures of fruit and vehicles, and he took out his toy vehicles, and put his toys beside the picture. Then he told us yi2 yang4 (一樣; the same). But when he saw the pictures of fruit, he wouldn't take the real fruit to match the fruit in the picture. He just used his mouth to touch the picture or used his teeth to bite it, so I am not sure if he knew the fruit in the pictures could not be eaten. Maybe his action just wanted to tell us the fruit he saw in the pictures could be eaten.

(Teacher's comment: Hard to interpret- some of the other observers were more definite about this.)


To sum up, Hau Hau's comprehension is far beyond his utterances.  He knows many names of objects, adults'  order and many other things, but he can not utter the sound and the words because of the limitation of his vocal tract.

  1. Sentence structure:  Hau Hau just begins with his two-word stage and the sum of his two-word utterances is few, so it is easy to analyze his sentence structure. As I can find his two-word utterances in Chart A1 and D1, I divide Hau Hau's sentence structure in two ways. One is Agentive + Verb, and the other Verb + Objective.

(Teacher's comment: Good analysis)

Agentive + Verb

Yi2, kei1 (姨,開)

Mama1, kan4 (媽媽,看)

Verb + Objective
Wan2 gueng1 yüan2 (玩公園)

Tzuo4 gou3 gou3 chi4 che1 (坐公共汽車)

Jau3 hueng2 ma3 ma1 (找洪媽媽)

Tzou4 gau1 gau1 (坐高高)

Hua4 ji4 che1 (畫汽車)


  1. How Hau Hau's parents and other adults talk to Hau Hau

Hau Hau is a naughty boy. He is so active that it is not easy to catch his attention. I noticed that when his mother wanted to talk to him, she would call Hau Hau's name in high pitch at first until she made sure Hau Hau was listening to her. Then she started to talk to Hau Hau. Most of what she talked to Hau Hau was restricted to “here and now” like “穿上你的褲褲” (put on your pajamas), “把門關上” (close the door) with pointing gesture, and so on.

Hau Hau's parents and other adults (we) also used baby talk to him. For example, we said “wo3 men5 lai2 tzuo4 che1 che1" (我們來坐車車)  instead of “wo3 men5 lai2 tzuo4 chi4 che1 (我們來坐汽車) when we talked to Hau Hau. As we talked to Hau Hau, we tended to select easy and useful words. For instance, we would say 狗狗 for all kinds of dogs, 蘋果, 橘子 instead of 水果. Of course, Chinese parents also ask their children whether they want to eat fruit, like “你要不要吃水果?” Baby talk, easy and useful words are often used by Hau Hau's parents, his babysitter and other adults when they talk to him *, so Hau Hau may imitate adults’ sound. Or maybe it's adults who imitate his baby talk.

*( Teacher's comment: Whose imitation comes first?)


"Just as adults select what they say to young children by restricting it to the 'here and now,'  so they alter the way they say what they say when talking to children. They do this in three ways: they slow down, they use short, simple sentences, and they repeat themselves frequently” (C&C 326). When Hau Hau showed a puzzled expression on his face to tell his parents that he didn't understand what they said, then his parents would slow down their speaking speed, change another simple sentence, or repeat their words to him. Usually Hau Hau could understand what his parents said to him in these three ways.

As our group members were talking to Hau Hau, sometimes we encouraged Hau Hau to take his turn when one of our group member had conversation with him. The purposes of taking turns are for continuing conversation, correcting information and for teaching him new words. The following conversation is between Hau Hau and me. I tried to teach him to say 電視機 but he only uttered .

Connie: Hau Hau, 這是什麼? (pointing to a car)

Hau Hau: 汽車

Connie: 浩浩好厲害喔!告訴姨,車車誰買給你的?

Hau Hau: (pointing to his mother)

Connie: 媽媽買的對不對?

Hau Hau: 媽媽

Connie: 浩浩,再告訴姨,那是什麼? (pointing to the television set)

Hau Hau: (no reaction)

Connie: 浩浩,說「電視機」

Hau Hau:

In the way of taking turns, Hau Hau knew what the television set was, though he just could utter instead of 電視機.

    I have mentioned that one of the purposes of taking turns in conversation is to make correction. When the conversation between Hau Hau and one of our group members continued by turns, we sometimes corrected his pronunciation and the names of objects he named wrong. The following conversation occurred when Jennifer showed Hau Hau pictures.

Jennifer (pointing to a car): 這是什麼?

Hau Hau: ji4 je1

Jennifer: 好棒喔!浩浩,再說一遍chi4 che 1

Hau Hau: chi4 je1

Jennifer: chi4 che1

Hau Hau gave up trying and turned to the next page.

Jennifer (pointing to a tiger): 這是什麼?浩浩

Hau Hau: mau1 ()

Jennifer: 這不是貓,這是老虎

Hau Hau: wu2 (slapping the tiger on the picture and turning to the next page)

Although Hau Hau did not repeat 老虎 or after Jennifer, we could tell that Hau Hau knew a tiger was a wild animal from the sound of wu2 he usually uttered when he saw wild beasts and we also knew Hau Hau was afraid of wild beasts by his action of slapping the picture and turning it to the next page. During my observation of how Hau Hau's mother talked to Hau Hau, I found that Hau Hau's mother seldom corrected Hau Hau's pronunciation. As we asked what Hau Hau was saying when we heard Hau Hau's unclear utterance and didn't understand him, Hau Hau's mother would explain to us what Hau Hau uttered rather than correcting his pronunciation.

(Teacher's comment: Interesting point!)

Comparing the result of my observation with what our textbooks say, I find children from different countries seem to experience a similar process of language acquisition and have similar phenomenon of uttering in their early language.

Teacher's comment: Very thorough, intereting, and informative observation report!