Stella Chen


Child Language

Mr. Nash

Jan.8, 1990 Observations

It is very exciting for me to see that some theories in the book are testified to be true during the observations.

Some researches have claimed that adults modify their ways of speech when they talk to children. It seems to be true so far, and I am particularly interested in this part, so that will be the focus of this paper. Besides, we find something interesting about Daniel. That will be discussed as well. Therefore, this paper will have two parts: the first part is about how adults talk to children; the second part is about Daniel's language.

Let us start with how the observers and Tom talk to Danny. After I listened to the tape and transcribed

it, I found that certain types of sentences occurred over and over again. They are as following:

(Teacher's comment: Did anybody else in the group listen to the tape? Having a tape and transcription makes a lot of difference, doesn't it?)


  1. The most noticeable sentence forms are “ What are (is) X?” and “What is this (that)?"*  This kind of question has several functions. First, it introduces the knowledge of the world to the children, helping them to recognize objects and label them. Second, children can practice saying the words and be corrected. Even if the question is “where,"  children very often not only point it out, but also say it in the meantime.  Third, we are testing if children really know how the object we are referring to is named. Fourth, it can be used as a way to show off if the adults want to.

*(Teacher's comment: "Frames")

  1. "What are you doing?” is used a lot. Roughly speaking, it happens in three situations: First, we want to draw the child to speak and see how much he can say. Second, we really do not know what he is doing. Third, we want to stop him from doing something. Then, the tone would be slightly different, of course.
  2. We command him all the time. “Danny, give me the pen.” “Kiss the bear.” “Wipe your hand.” This is certainly common, and children cannot protest.

(Teacher's comment: Why do you think we use commands rather than requests?)

  1. We use “no” to stop him. This seems to be most effective as far as delivering the message is concerned. Whether he would stop or not, that's something else. It is interesting that, in this usage, we are somehow like babies, using a single word to carry the meaning of a longer sentence.
  2. We like to ask him to say something. For instance, “Danny, say 'sun'.” "You say please." (2) “Say‘sorry, horse’.”(3)“Say‘Hami, have some fish.’”(4) It is no surprise to use this so often, and it benefits both of us. He can practice and we can hear his pronunciation.

(Teacher's comment: Could this also (sometimes) be teaching for social interaction, as in examples 2, 3, 4?)

  1. Tom uses quite a few interrogative sentences when he talks to Danny (Not including WH-questions).* For example “Can you climb up?” “Can you do it?” “Is the air coming out? “Is it good?”

*(Teacher's comment: Not even the frames from point 1.?)


In addition, some other things are clearly observed too, like high pitch, short sentences, pauses, and calling his name. Furthermore, I want to provide examples for some other modifications:

  1. Expansion: Adults tend to expand children's sentences or annotate the sentences.


    Danny: Eyes (pushing 龍龍's eyes).

    Tom: 龍龍 has eyes, right?


    Danny: 麵麵!

    Mrs. Nash: 啊!我在吃麵 麵。

  2. Prompt questions:

    Tom: Who are you going to call?

    Danny: (Silence)

    Tom: Call whom?

    (Teacher's comment: Did I really say whom? Not who?)

  3. Repetition:

    When we think of repetition, we are thinking of examples like

    Tom: Put it back. (repeating it four times)

    Tom: Throw it away, put it in the trash.

    Amy: Trash.

    but I found another kind. That is when the child says something, adults usually repeat what he says. For example:

    Danny: More.

    Adults: More.

    Danny: Time.

    Adults: Time.

    (Teacher's comments: 1)This is interesting.  2) Did you find any examples of connection?)

It was amusing when I noticed this, because we think this is what children do, not adults. I guess it would be interesting to see why adults do this, but I do not have a good answer for it. Maybe sometimes we want to affirm that what the child said is right.

(Teacher's comment: Could be possibility--"more observation is needed."   Could it even be possible that children learn to repeat from adults?)

  1. Using children's grammar:

    e.g.1. Tom: 浩浩, come play.

    e.g.2. Adult: Fish all gone.

    e.g.3. Adult: No pen.

  2. Addressing others according to how the child addresses them:

Tom: 阿姨, watch out for your notes.

Mrs. Nash: 爸爸, 你要不要吃早餐?


One more thing I want to mention is that Tom sometimes speaks to Danny: “Do you know what that means? You don't know what that means. You just imitate.” I think this is somewhat unlikely to happen in other families.

Now, we are moving to the second part, and I want to talk about Danny's language. I am not going to write a whole book about it. I'll just pick up some things that interest me most.

The first thing I noticed is that there are very few reduplications in English, but very many in Mandarin. Later on, I found that English and Chinese have different baby talk in some ways: English tends to change the ending sound of a word, like “Dog--Doggie” while Mandarin simply reduplicates the word, like “ --“.  [?Example omitted]  I think that has something to do with the nature of these two languages--how the words are constructed and pronounced. Look at the example in C&C:

Child: [points] Doggie.

Adult: No, that's a HORSIE. (325)

if this were Mandarin, it would be:

Child: 狗狗

Adult: 不是,那是馬馬。

However, since this is not thoroughly studied, any explanation for this phenomenon can only be regarded as tentative.

(Teacher's comment: "More research is necessary"--this could be a very interesting point to look into.)

Secondly, when we say short sentences to him, he picks up one word and repeats it, and usually it's the last one, like:

Adult: Where is your car?

Child: Car.

Adult: Remember her name?

Child: Name.

However, it is not always the case. We got examples like:

Adult: Do you finish yet?

Child: Finish.

Adult: Do you wash his pipi?

Child: Wash.

Adult: What time is it?

Child: Time.


It is understandable why he chooses “finish” and “time” in the first and third cases, since other words don't mean too much to him. In the second case, there are two crucial words; maybe it is just a coincidence that he chooses the former one to repeat. Furthermore, this seems to suggest that when children listen to adults, they strain out the words they can recognize and try to figure out the meaning. It also gives us an impression that children can catch the key words in a sentence, but I am afraid that it would be jumping the gun a little to say that.

Thirdly, we are very impressed by Danny in that he has started to use possessives.  In theory, it appears much later. When I examined the transcription of the tape, it appears the inflections we used were “-s” (plural), “-ed” (past tense), “-ing” (present progressive), “-s” (third person singular) and “-'s” (possessive). (1)     Among these, possessive is the only one that makes a real difference in meaning. (2)  Maybe that's why it is more noticeable. However, a sixty-minute-tape may not be able to tell the story. Besides, it is recorded after he has acquired the morpheme. (3)

(Teacher's comments (1): Good observing.    (2) This statement certainly requires some justification. 3rd person singular certainly is redundant, and possibly the plural may be, but past tense and progressive? Don't they make a real difference in meaning?)

(3) Yes, It's too bad we don't have a lot of tapes from the babysitters' house for the period preceding acquisition, and from my house when we seem to have taught him the English possessive. Maybe we shouldn't say he's "acquired" it. It only appears in one-word utterances, not in longer ones. E.g. "Baba's," but not "Baba's foot.")

In the first part, we have affirmed some theories in the book and find something novel, and these two things are certainly what we look for in observations. In the second part, we leave some questions which require further study. That's also a good result.  From the first frustrated observation to the Christmas feast, we gradually moved away from ignorance of child language and came to a more critical attitude towards first language acquisition, and I really appreciate this experience. *I thank Danny and his parents! (You're welcome.)

Teacher's comment: Good observation--pretty thorough and analytic, with good questions raised for further study.