Sunniva Liao

Child Language

Mr. Nash

Fall 1991 An Observation on Du Du's Language

Du Du, sometimes called Hueng Buo, is 20 months old now. He is at the one-word or two-or-three-morpheme stage.* The vocabulary he can produce but not necessarily understand is about 70 words. At this stage, his comprehension about the name of objects and question is quite good. But about his production, except for a few words which he can say by himself, he only imitates what adults say and sometimes is babbling especially when he is excited. I think the way Du Du speaks may or may not be influenced by adults. Therefore, the following paragraphs are not only about how Du Du talks and comprehends, but also how his mother, his uncle and we talk to him.

*(Teacher's comment: More discussion or explanation of this point would be helpful. I'm facing the problem of defining stages, too.)

  1. How Du Du talks

A.  Imitating words by context

Du Du most of the time repeats what adults say. The only words he doesn't repeat after adults are 這個 and his name 家柏. The sum of the words he can pronounce are 70. Although the number of 70 looks shocking, yet he can only use 2 out of 70 on his own. Table 1 shows what the 70 words are.

He imitates adults’ word when he is playing or looking at something. For example, when we and his mother were playing with an airplane, we kept telling him 打開, when we were opening the door of the airplane. Then his mother said, “說打開.” “打開” said he. Take another example, when we showed him a ball, we asked, “這是什麼?” Silence. We said, “球.” “球” said he. Since the ball is an old toy, his parents must have taught him how to call it. But when he saw the ball, he didn't answer our question until we told him. The ball example can represent other examples of objects' names in that he never answered us until we told him, whether he has been taught or not.

Table 1

(T) means Taiwanese ( ) means I am not sure


1: the first tone in Mandarin 

2: the second tone in Mandarin ()

3: the third tone in Mandarin ()

4: the fourth tone in Mandarin ()

5: the fifth tone in Mandarin ( .

10月25日 (1;6) (18th ) 11月24日 (1;7) (19th) 1月2日 (1;8) (20th)
  iou 4

大象  ang 4 ang 4

出來 1 lai 2

打開  ta 3 k' ai

阿媽 (T) a 5 ma 4

  hau 2

狗狗 ua 2 aii 2

鴨鴨  ia 1 ia 1

爸爸  pa5 pa 2 ; pa 5 pa 4

爸爸 (T)  pa 1 pa 5

媽媽  ma 1 ma 5

  ma 2

  niou 2

狗狗  kou 3 kou 2

  eng 4

  ka 3 ka 2

小魚 G iau 3 i 2

司機  kuai 1 ji 1

車車  u 1 u 1

  na 2

這個  ji 4 ke 5


你好嗎 hen 3 ma1  

  ma 1

姑姑  ku 3 ku 2

宏柏  hueng 2 bo 2

大鳥 niau  3

  iou 3

厲害 (Z i) 4 he 4

喝喝  he 1 he 1

山洞  shan 1 dou 4

積木 m 1 m 4

  mou 2

雞蛋  tG i 1 den 4

  iuei 2

  tG iou 2 , kou 2

  iu 2

過去 ke 4 tG i 4

妹妹 (T)  me 1 me 5

阿公 (T)  a 5 kou 1

不要  pu 2 iau 4

叭叭  pa 1 pa 1

好玩  hau 3 uan 2

  tsau 3

  hai 4

蛋糕  tan 4 kan 1

電扇  ka 1 ka 1

小魚  G iau 3 iu 2

尿小狗 (尿尿)  niau 4 hau 2 kou 3

車車  1 1

  Z uan 3

這個  je 4 ke 5

好高  hau 3 kau 1

  t'iau 4

  p'au 3

  t'ie 1

小豬  G iau 3 te 1

  uei 2

走開  tou 3 kai 1

再見  kai 4 kian 4

借過  tG ie 1 ko 4

哎唷  ai 2 iou 1

開了  k'ai 1 le 1

麵包  mi 1 pou 1

帽帽  mau 4 mau 4

跳繩  t'iau 4 eng 2

電視  tian 1 1

餅乾  peng 3 kan 1

跌倒  tie 2 tau 3

叔叔  hu 1 hu 1

氣球  hi 1 tG 2

姑姑的 ku 1 ku 1 te 5


  1. Making systematic errors in production

Replacing sounds with g, and i

When Du Du has difficulty pronouncing [s] (), [ts'] () or [ts] (), he uses (ㄍ) to replace them. In Table 1, the consonants in each first morpheme of 司機, 球, and 再見 are all pronounced with [k]. Maybe [s], [ts'] and [ts] are difficult for them, which may result from the fact that [s], [ts'] and [ts] are frictives or affricates, which are more difficult than stops to learn. As Clark and Clark mention in the book, the first learned consonants are all stops and nasals (392), and [k] is one of the stops. Besides, in EL, one of the simplifying principles area that they prefer to voicing the first consonants, and the example is “the use of guck for truck” (27). For the [g] of 見 in 再見, I think it's influenced by 再, since another simplifying principle in EL, is “the assimilation of all the consonants or vowels in a word to the same place of articulation in the mouth” (20). Besides, Du Du can pronounce [tG] (ㄐ) well in other words. Therefore, the [k] in 司, 球, 再 is used for preference, and the [k] in 見 is used for assimilation.

When Du Du had rounded vowel [y] to produce, he used unrounded counterpart [i] to substitute. In Table 1, the vowels of 魚 in 小魚, and 這 in 這個 are produced with [i] instead of [iu]. As C&C says, [i] and [a] are the first learned sounds, since the tongue is flat (393).  Du Du first pronounced [i], but he got the correct sounds 2 months later. For this reason, he made the mistakes only because he hadn't learned to round his lips.

  1. Using gesture to replace or to accompany utterance

As I mentioned above, he mostly could only imitate adults' words. Besides, “gestural signs are easier to make than words are to articulate at that age” (EL 24). When he has something to say or feeling to express, he must use gesture before he can say something by himself. The table below shows Du Du's gestures, the relevant situation, and meaning of each gesture without utterances.


Table 2
Gesture Situation Meaning
Turning around and stretching his hand to his mother  When he first saw us on the first observation He was afraid of us, and wanted his mother.
Using one hand to try to push away the watch and raising the other hand on which the watch is worn After we tighten the watch on his hand He didn't like to wear the watch and wanted us to take it off for him. 
Pointing to his shoes 

Pointing to the snack 

Pointing to his mouth

When we ask him where his shoes are 

When his mother wanted us to eat the snack 

When we ask him to say something

Over there 

Please eat.  

He was eating, so he couldn't speak. (He was taught not to speak while eating.)

Stepping backward, turning to another person's knees and trying to be hugged When we give him a new toy cow. (His mother told us he was afraid of any new toy.) He was afraid of the thing because he never saw it before.

The other two gestures are accompanied with utterances as in Table 3.

Table 3

Utterance Gesture situation
謝謝 Earlier, pressing his head. Later on, only nodding his head.  When he was asked to say “Thank you.”
再見 Earlier, kissing his right hand and then waving. Later on, only waving When he was asked to say “Good-bye.” Even when he was on the phone, he still has this waving gesture to say “Good-bye.”

Table 2 shows that gestures help a lot especially when the kid didn't know how to say it. That is, gesture is the kid's strategy. If we don't pay attention to it, we will lose a lot, and the communication will fail.

Table 3 shows that some gestures can please listeners. The gestures of “Thank you” and “Good-bye” are quite interesting. Whenever he made these gestures, we were all glad and laughed. (1) His mother even asked him to say them once more just for fun.

(Teacher's comment (1): Why?)

  1. Comprehension

Although Du Du seldom spoke out on his own, his comprehension is good. He can understand the name of objects, yes/no questions, and wh-questions.

  1. Names of objects

Du Du's mother often wants him to say or to do something, and he can do it well. For example, his mother asked him togive us something.

Mother: 拿養樂多給姑姑

Du Du: [did it]

Mother: 再拿一瓶給另一個姑姑

Du Du: [did it]

[and so on]

Mother: 然後拿吸管給姑姑

Du Du: [did it]

Notice that his mother didn't use baby talk, such as 多多, 管管; rather, she used adults’ words though one minute earlier she had taught him 多多. Besides, when she asked him to give it to another aunt, she didn't use gesture and eye gaze because Du Du's back was facing his mother, but he knew which one his mother referred to. About the switch from 多多 to 養樂多, maybe he paid attention to the last morpheme 多 in 養樂多, so when he heard ~多, he treated the word as 多多. Or because these 養樂多 were put in front of him, he might assume that what he saw was the thing his mother referred to. This matches the “here and now” in C&C. But 吸管 was also in front of him. (吸管 and 養樂多 were put side by side.) For this reason, maybe the first reason is more possible or maybe he really understands which one is 養樂多, and which one is 吸管.

  1. Yes/no questions

Du Du's parents and uncle often use yes/no questions; otherwise they never know whether he agreed or not. On the other hand, he never failed understanding such questions as 要不要?, 好不好?, 有沒有?, and 好不好玩?. Among the four yes/no questions, 要不要?is the most frequent one. From his response, an interesting thing is that during the first two observations, he answered only when he agreed; we didn't hear him say 不要 until the third observation.

I think it's amazing for the kid not only to know that the structure  A B A is a yes/no question, but also to know that the morpheme(s) after the negative B is the morpheme to express his agreement; even the answer of 好不好玩? is 好玩, not 玩 (see the list under 1;8 in Table 1).  Maybe he recognized that 不 and 沒 are negative expressions. But if it's true, why couldn't he give negative answers until later? Maybe at that time, it was still difficult for him to use positive and negative morphemes together, so he was simply silent.

(Teacher's comment: Perhaps articulation or planning limitations? More two- morpheme expressions (not reduplication) are listed at 20 months)

  1. Wh-questions

Du Du can understand “where,” “who,” “whose,” and maybe “what.” The following examples are the examples of “wh-questions.”

  1. Adult: 你的鼻子在那裡?
  2. Du Du: [touches his nose]
  3. Adult: 姑姑的耳朵在那裡?
  4. Du Du: [looks at Sofelien's ears]
  5. Adult: 這是什麼?
  6. Du Du: [silence]

    Adult: 雞

    Du Du: 雞

  7. Adult: 這是誰? [pointing at a kid in a picture]
  8. Du Du: 宏柏
  9. Adult: 錄音機是誰的?

Du Du: 姑姑的

(Teacher's comment: In examples 1 and 2, all he would need to understand is the context (a familiar routine?) and "nose" and "ear.")

With the exception of example 3, I am sure he understood where, who, and whose. In example 3, his first silence may mean he didn't know what the question means, but may mean he knew the question, and understood “what-question” is not clear. (?)

  1. How adults talk to Du Du
    1. Seldom using baby talk

      Du Du's mother and uncle seldom talk to him in baby talk; especially his uncle always call him 宏柏 instead of Du Du. This phenomenon is just what I need, since I have been curious about what if adults don't use baby talk to kids?

      From the list in Table 1, we can see there are few baby talk words, only 鴨鴨,車車, 喝喝, 電扇(ga ga), 狗狗, 尿小狗 and 帽帽. The other words are not baby talk. And from our notebook, what he hasn't produced but heard is also not baby talk words except 腳腳 and 鞋鞋. This is the evidence to say the adults seldom use baby talk to him.

      Adults mostly using adult words may hesitate (2) kids to speak. As I mentioned before, Du Du most of time just imitated what adults say, even though he had learned some words before. Why didn't he take the initiative in speaking? Perhaps Du Du was never sure whether his pronunciation was right since most of the adult words are not easy to produce. Hence, not until listening to adults'  pronunciation again, was he sure to produce. (3)

(Teacher's comment (2): Cause kids to start speaking later?)

(Teacher's comment (3): Interesting speculation)

Another possibility for kids' hesitating to speak is that the words themselves are difficult to remember. Maybe he just forgot what he had been taught until adults remind him.

From my assumption, it seems that I am in favor of  baby talk, but it's not true.  Maybe their infrequent use of baby talk can benefit Du Du in some other aspects. I don't know.

  1. Using model dialogues

Since Du Du seldom speaks, his mother often takes both sides of the conversation. For example,

Mother: 狗狗在那裡?

[points at doggie] 狗狗在這裡。

Mother: 這是什麼? [points at a picture]


I think the use of model dialogues could contribute to the fact that Du Du seldom takes the initiative in speaking. This kind of dialogue may help children to identify conversational turns as C&C say on page 324, but I think it might prevent children from speaking at the one-word stage. Since he has the ability to produce sounds, and he was learning vocabulary, his mother could have waited for a while to see if Du Du could answer by himself. Therefore, the frequent use of model dialogues can be related to Du Du's way of speaking.

(Teacher's comment: Possibly; good speculation)

  1. Saying words first, and letting him follow

Du Du's mother often takes out a picture book to teach him how to call each of the pictures.

Mother: 跳繩 [points at the picture of a jump rope in the book]

Du Du: 跳繩

Mother: 電視 [points at the picture of a television]

Du Du: 電視

(and so on)

From this kind of teaching, he might get used to repeating something immediately after adults. This also could result in his imitation.

  1. Using slow speech and pauses

We adults usually slow our utterances down by pausing between words. For example, when we wanted him to put away his blocks, his uncle said, “把積木放進去。      放!    對,  放!(The spaces mean pauses.)” When he wanted to take out a toy chicken from a basket, one of us said, 東西在裡面,快拿出來。 Another longer example happened when we asked him where his shoes were.

Adult: 你的鞋鞋呢?      在那裡?

在那裡喲。       要不要拿過來?

去拿來。      拿來給阿姨看。

(Teacher's comment: A lot of repetition here.)

Since the slow speech and pause can help children segment linguistic units as C&C say (328), this possible role can in turn help children's comprehension. He can have more chances to catch the meaning of smaller units in a stream of speech. For this reason, I think the use of slow speech and pauses may be one contribution to Du Du's good comprehension.

In conclusion, Du Du seldom takes the initiative to speak out. He imitates or repeats adult words by context. His errors in pronunciation are systematic and the patterns quite match those presented in C&C and EL. Although he seldom speaks by himself and makes some errors in production, the gestures he uses could be a strategy to express himself or to please people. When people talk to him, his comprehension is good, so that he can use gestures or words to complement the other side of conversation. Since Du Du likes to repeat after adults, this phenomenon may result from how adults talk to him. As result, I found that adults' use of model dialogues, few baby talk words, and repetition perhaps can influence Du Du's speaking.

Teacher's comment:

Perceptive observation and analysis. Well-organized presentation.