Sabrina's Report on Observations of Hau Hau (浩浩)

"Che Che, xie xie, Who…Ya…Di.” What's that? When you see an eighteen month old child playing around you and pronouncing these strange sounds that you probably don't understand, I am sure that you will have a big question mark in your mind, so do I. In order to have a better understanding about child language, we observe 浩浩, who is 18 months old, two times. In this observation report, I focus on 浩浩's vocabulary, comprehension, pronunciation, gestures and how adults talk to him.

Jerome Bruner*1 suggests that children may begin their language acquisition by using the context of a situation to figure out what speakers are trying to accomplish;  meanwhile, the speakers must fit into the context, or they probably won't understand baby talking. Once浩浩 grasped Adeline's (one of our group members) hand and wanted her to go with him. Adeline asked him what he wanted but he just keep silent and wanted her to follow him. I wondered what happened. Therefore, I followed them to see what was going on. 浩浩 guided Adeline to go to his parents'  bedroom and he asked her to hold him up to the window facing the  road and said “公共汽車.” It reminded us that his mother said he liked to take a bus and his parents often held him to see the bus at that place. Then we figure out why he wanted Adeline to see the bus. If we don't fit to the context, we wouldn't understand if bus has special meaning for him. The other example is 浩浩 always says , when he doesn't know the name of objects or anything he doesn't understand. *2 At the beginning, we didn't know what refers to; later his mother told us, and then we understood it. Fitting into his context is very important for us to understand his speech more. That is the reason that we asked his mother about 浩浩's vocabulary first the next time, before we played with him.*3

(Teacher's comments: *1. Source for Bruner? *2. An interesting strategy *3. Good examples )

浩浩's vocabulary is about fifty  words. His mother said that sometimes he says some new words, but these words will disappear a few days later. Thus, fifty words might not be the right number. The following chart shows his vocabulary.

(Teacher's comment: Interesting how nouns predominate)


Nouns Verbs  Adjectives
公共汽車( ㄍㄡ3ㄍㄡ3汽車) 笨笨 *1 大, 小
洗澡 (澡澡) 髒髒
汽莗 (車車) (ㄐ一ㄡ4 ) 一樣
皮球 (皮皮) 那邊 (邊邊)
(雞雞) 浩浩的 *2
兔子 (兔寶寶_ㄉ ㄨ4 ㄅㄠ3ㄅㄠ3) (打打)  
洪媽媽 洪爸爸    
姊姊 (ㄉ一ㄝ2 ㄉ一ㄝ2 )    
坐高翹 (坐高高)    
飛機 (機機)    
男娃娃 (圓圓)    
女娃娃 (妹妹)    
吃飯 (飯飯)    
椅子 (椅椅 ㄐ一2ㄐ一2)    
鞋子 (鞋鞋)    
拖鞋 (拖拖)    
畫圈圈 (圈圈)    
畫三角形 (三形)     
溜滑梯 (梯梯)    
公園玩 (玩公園)    
畫汽車 ( ㄏㄚ4 ㄓㄜ1 ㄓㄜ1)    
牛奶 ( ㄋ一ㄝ1ㄋ一ㄝ1)    
上廁所 (便便)    
計程車 (ㄉ一4ㄉㄥ2 ㄓㄜ1 )    
大象 ( ㄉㄚ4 ㄐ一ㄤ4)    
獅子 (ㄉㄚ4ㄉㄚ4 )    
長頸鹿 (鹿)    
西瓜 (ㄉ一ㄥ 1 ㄅㄚ1 ; ㄉ一ㄥ 1ㄉ一ㄥ 1)    
蜘蛛 ( ㄉㄜ 1 ㄉㄨ 1)    

(Teacher's comments: *1. Verb? *2. Would you say that he has acquried this grammatical morpheme (的)? *3. A noun in his usage?)


When I analyze his vocabulary, I notice that he often overgeneralizes the meaning of his words. Actually, what the child is doing is trying out his newly learned vocabulary when he finds need for giving a name to a new object or an object for which he doesn't have a word. According to Father Hsu's edition, 浩浩's overextension of meaning can be grouped into three major categories: (1) By way of perceptual similarity: for instance, he learned “che che” (car) first, then he refers it to any kind of cars such as train and first-truck. (2)* By way of association : for example, when 浩浩 saw his father's shoes, because of association, he would say “Pa Pa” (father). He also says “pa pa” for his father's shirt. (3) By way of function: for example, "the word 'tangtang' (meaning it's very hot, it burns) and this word was first used to refer to all spicy flavors.  Once the child has acquired more semantic features for certain concepts and also increased his vocabulary at the same time, then his use of words became more like adults'” (Hsu 12). Although the way that 浩浩 acquires words is not as proper as adults', he will acquire adults'  system step by step, as long as he learns more.

(Teacher's comment: Could he here be indicating possession?)

In 浩浩's vocabulary, single words in which morphemes are reduplicated occupy a large proportion,  and words of more than one morpheme are fewer.  There is only on exception, that is, 公共汽車 which is four morphemes. I guess he can pronounce four morphemes because his parents often repeat these four morphemes to him and he imitates them from his parents. Actually he can't pronounce公共汽車 well. Some of his words are standard words which are adultlike; some are word approximations which include ones like 澡澡 for 洗澡 or 飯飯 for 吃飯, and some are vocables which have no similarity to standard words, such as ㄉㄚ4 ㄉㄚ4 for lion. In 浩浩's vocabulary, his words are mostly monosyllablic and simple morpheme words. With the word approximations, most of them are one morpheme which is often reduplicated, taken from multi-morphemes word such as "che che" for" car."  Basically, at 浩浩's stage, the large majority of the child's words are vocables or word approximations with very few standard words.

What strategies did 浩浩 use for selecting the morphemes as he did?  First is perceptual strategy, that is, the sound which is the most recent in his memory, always the last syllable. For instance, 汽車, 浩浩 takes車;  洗澡, he takes澡; 飛機, he takes. When there are two morphemes, this strategy is preferred. Perhaps the last syllable is the easiest one to perceive. Another strategy is meaning-oriented, that is, the morpheme which carries the meaning of the word. For example, for汽車and for鞋子. *1 These examples can also be explained with the perceptual strategy. The stress is on the first syllable all the time. In 浩浩's word list, there are a great number of reduplications. Why? Perhaps his parents always reduplicate morphemes by themselves, and 浩浩 learned this form from them; besides, reduplication form is easier to pronounce because pronouncing the same morpheme twice is easier than pronouncing two different morphemes. The characteristic of his strategies *2 is to delete the first morpheme and keep the second one and reduplicate it.

(Teacher's comments: *1. Interesting point (Danny seems to use the same strategy)! This seems to fit the U.O.P.- Pay attention to the ends of words *2. Or perhaps his parents' strategy)


As for 浩浩's word classes, the major group of words are nouns, then follow with verbs and very few objectives. I don't think he applies adults'  grammatical system, for he can't distinguish noun, verb,  and adjective. He just uses them naturally* 1. Actually, there are more nouns than other word classes because they represent objects which are more tangible and more perceptible to the child in his surroundings. All his toys are concrete nouns. When he played with those toys, his parents kept asking him “What's this?” If 浩浩 couldn't give a correct answer, they would teach him to say them again. In his surroundings, concrete objects occupy a large proportion. Therefore, noun class is more than other word classes. The second large group of words are verbs. Action verbs are the largest group in number. I think why there are more action verbs than other kinds of verbs because 浩浩 is always playing with toys and talking to them; and also we are doing the same things. For instance, we often asked him “Do you have an airplane?” Then he would pick up an airplane among his toys while he said “機機 (airplane)”*2. Once he held a chocolate box and asked me to open it. Those verbs all have something to do with the action he did while he is playing or eating. These are very few adjectives in his word list. "Da" for "big battery," "xiao" for "small battery" and also "Zang Zang" for "dirty."

(Teacher's comments: *1. What does "naturally" mean here? *2. Verb?)

How does 浩浩 express negation and questions? There are several ways that he uses to express questions. First, he uses facial expression. For example, he looks puzzled when he doesn't understand something. Second, he often uses to ask for  information. This point I mentioned  before. Third, he uses rising intonation as a question to ask adults what this is or what that is. As for negation, I never heard him say “bu-yao” or “meiyou.” If he doesn't want that toy or food, he just shakes his head or runs away.

(Teacher's comment: Very interesting and informative analysis of vocabulary)

As for pronunciation, I think bilabial, labio-dental and velar consonants and front vowels  predominate. Bilabial like “pa pa” and “ma ma,"  labio-dental like “飯 ㄈㄢ 4 f,"  velar like “個 ㄍㄜ 4 k";  the front vowel is like “2”/y/  and “ ㄩㄢ2 ”/yan/.  However, in this early stage of language development, those sounds are unstable. Sometimes he pronounces them correctly, sometimes he doesn't.   With regard to the functions of intonation and stress in 浩浩's vocabulary, the gentle rising and falling pattern is used to call somebody or name something; a slow rising pattern seems to be used as a question. For example, “ma ma”with  gentle rising intonation to call his mother; “che che” with falling intonation to name an object. It seems he uses falling intonation to tell you the object he knows.  A sharp and abrupt falling intonation is used to express refusal or denial, generally with a heavy stress on it. * The stress is generally used to indicate impatience or emphasis. We often asked 浩浩 “What's this? What's that?” If he is impatient to do that, he will say the word with a heavy stress. As for tone, I don't think he can distinguish four tones well. Generally speaking, he often uses rising tone because of its high frequency in the reduplicated nouns which his parents address to him. Adults often use the rising tone to talk to the baby.

(Teacher's comment: How does this compare with adult stress and intonation?)

In the following I will discuss 浩浩's comprehension. In the observation, I am shocked by his comprehension ability. First are spatial relations.  Basically, children will put an object into container automatically, but they can't take it out before three years old. 浩浩 is only 18 months. We asked him to put a small ball into a cup. He did it successfully. Then we asked him to take it out. To our surprise, he understood what we said and took the ball out. In order to make sure if he really understands this spatial relation, I asked him to do it a  second time later. He did it, too. Therefore, I believe he understands this spatial relation. *1 The other example is that we have an experiment--we put two chips on the table, and  asked him to separate them, and he did it successfully. Then we asked him to put them together. Gee, he can follow our instructions; besides, he has a clear idea about big/small, but he can't tell short/tall or wide/narrow. Second,  he can distinguish  pictures from the real objects. For example, taking the toy cars to match the car in a picture. It is interesting when he saw lion or crocodile in a picture, he said “怕怕” first, and then he tried to beat them in the picture. We don't know why. Third, he can tell a lot of objects such as animals and toys. For example, we asked where his teeth are; he pointed to his mother's. We asked him when his mouth is, and he put 養樂多 into a doll's mouth. *2 Generally speaking, he can follow almost all our instructions and match the thing that is in a book.

(Teacher's comments: *1. Was this always after he had put it in? If so, what else would he then do but take it out? Did you try beginning with one object already inside a container?

*2. He matched the objects you referred to, but does it appear that he understood the whole utterance?)

When he makes assertions, there are a lot of gestures and he creates some strange sounds. For example, when he rides his bike, he often creates some strange sounds; it seems that he is excited, and points here and there.  Sometimes, he uses his mouth to touch the fruit in a bowl when asked to point out the fruit. If we play ball with him and hide the ball, he will use his eyes to search first and then use his hand to point out where the ball is. If we point out the ball is not here and is somewhere else, he will gaze and look puzzled.  In his stage, gestures outnumber spoken language.

(Teacher's comment: So maybe we need to pay more attention to gestures.)

How do adults talk to him? There are several features. First, we must arouse his attention by calling his name before we talk to him. Actually, his parents call "浩浩" all the time to get his attention.  Second, we must speak at a very slow speed, using short and simple sentences, or he won't understand what we are talking about.  Besides, there are a great deal of repetitions to help him to follow our instructions, and we will pause between sentences to make sure if he understands our instructions. Third, his parents and we use sentence frames.  We tend to use one or two frames very frequently, usually with exaggerated intonation and heavy stress on the word following the frames. For example, his mother often said to 浩浩這是什麼? 是飛機,這是什麼? 是汽車*1 When浩浩 is familiar with this frame, it is easier for him to understand what his mother is talking about; besides, this kind of frame can help 浩浩 to learn new vocabulary. Four, his parents and we use a higher-pitched voice and special baby-talk words such as reduplications.  Fifth, we often imitate his sounds, facial expression and rising tone to talk to him. Sixth, we usually do a lot of gestures to describe objects while we talk to 浩浩. For example, we drew a circle with our hands when we said, “Where is the ball? The ball.” We touched his head and said, “Where is your hat?” The gesture can help him to understand adults'  speech. Seventh, it is the mapping lesson. If 浩浩 starts a conversation by talking about his ball, we may expatiate by using words for properties of a ball (big, round) and actions associated with a ball (throw, catch). In this way, adults build up children's vocabulary conceptual domains. The corrections adults make are also important, if they help children to be more precise in picking the right words, so the listener will understand. * 2 Eight, his parents usually use imperative sentences to him, for teaching him to label or to ask him to do this and that.

(Teacher's comments: * 1. This looks like both a frame and a model dialogue (Question-Answer).

*2. Do you have examples of corrections? And of the other modifications listed here? )

We observed 浩浩 twice. The conclusion is that he has fifty words in his vocabulary, his comprehension ability is good, and his pronunciation is still unstable.  When he makes assertions, there are a lot of gestures, and adults often use imperative sentences, repetition,  simple sentences and exaggerated intonation to talk to him. Because of our observation of 浩浩, I understand more about how Chinese children learn language.

Teacher's comment: Good! Interesting observation--many important points brought out.