Why I love language acquisition

At 2 years and 11 months, my daughter just came out with this phrase in Portuguese – “Se eu fosse lá, eu vou botar você na cadeia“. (If I were to go there, I am going to put you in jail.) So she managed to form the imperfect subjunctive correctly but used the simple future instead of the conditional for the second part of the phrase.

As a second language learner (not acquirer) I managed to internalise the imperfect subjunctive plus conditional pairing only by memorising specific examples while I was studying for exams. Even now I don’t always get it right. (See Duolingo’s explanation of the subjunctive mood for further clarification / confusion.)

I’m not suggesting for one moment that my daughter has any special language skills and this is what amazes me about language acquisition. It doesn’t seem to be even in that she picks up and repeats grammatical structures which are considered to be advanced before she has fully mastered structures which are considered  simpler and which she has been more frequently exposed to.

These questions came in English the next day while we were reading Ladybird’s (amazing) The Animal Alphabet Book: “Apes don’t has tails? And monkeys does have tails?”. So that makes me think that language acquisition is uneven both across the range of languages spoken (presumably however extensive that might be) and within each single language.

I am enjoying the fact that this is all entirely natural for a toddler. My daughter doesn’t know that the subjunctive mood wouldn’t be introduced in a taught curriculum until the present, past and future tenses (regular and irregular) were well and truly established. She doesn’t know that coming out with “Você pode brincar comigo se quiser” (You can play with me if you like) – using the future subjunctive to indicate uncertainty about the other person’s possible actions in response to her invitation to play – whilst also using “Ela fazeu” instead of “Ela fez” (she do-ed instead of she did) is remarkable.

I love getting glimpses into her cognitive processes too. I had come to the conclusion that bilingual people had entirely compartmentalised mental language libraries after noticing how many bilingual people find interpreting does not come naturally to them. (This is probably a subject for another post so I’ll stop there). But I’m discovering that this is not the case.

Recently my daughter came home from her great-grandmother’s house with a duck finger-puppet that a family friend had made for her. I know that she had never heard the duck finger-puppet referred to in English because only Portuguese is spoken by her great-grandmother’s household. I was a bit surprised  when she announced to me that she had been given a present – “Se chama finger duck” (It’s called finger duck). Perhaps she couldn’t remember the Portuguese or which way round the words went. So she opted for a mixture of actual Portuguese and English translated very literally from Portuguese.

She likes to sell fruit and fish and now has a calculator which she uses as her till. I asked recently her how much I needed to pay for some imaginary item and she replied in English “Mmm, let I see”. There is no chance that she has ever heard anyone using that structure in English and it is a literal translation from the Portuguese (“Deixa eu ver“). So clearly her languages are not as compartmentalised as I thought.

I’m sure that thousands of studies have been undertaken on language acquisition throughout the decades. I remember as a teenager being fascinated by David Crystal’s book How Language Works, and reading about how deaf children raised by hearing parents (ie second-language users) created grammar naturally as they acquired and used sign language among themselves. ‘They really made the language their own’ as any interchangeable celebrity judge on any interchangeable talent show would say. In this case the children literally transformed what was effectively a sign pidgin into a language. So I’m not attempting to say anything new here, but I am enjoying seeing my daughter’s languages grow and develop as she grows and develops, and I’m making the most of the unique privilege I have as an observer.

The challenges she will face as a child acquiring two languages will be different to those I faced as a teenager and adult learning a second language and there are advantages and disadvantages that come with both of these scenarios. But all that can wait! In the meantime, someone would like to use the ‘complicador‘* so I should go.

* (complicator, computador, or computer).

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