Bilingual children and language development – Over-generalisation of specific rules

As I mentioned in my last post (which describes our language journey as a third-culture family), my daughter is currently most comfortable speaking in Portuguese.

This hasn’t always been the case but now, at three and three months, Portuguese is her default language and if she finds it difficult to express herself in English she’ll switch to Portuguese, either for one word or for the rest of the story.

I’m not familiar with developmental phases within language acquisition but I have been surprised by a few patterns I’ve seen in her Portuguese so I’ll mention them here. Neither do I have any idea about the correct terminology to use for language acquisition. So I’ll be trying to explain clearly what I mean by using examples and labouring all my points.

Contractions of words

She used to pronounce ‘rápido’ (‘fast / quickly‘) in full, with three syllables. In the last few weeks she has been pronouncing it as ‘rato’ (‘mouse‘). I’m pretty sure she’s not mixing up the words as we use both words quite frequently. I think it is a coincidence that she has chosen to shorten ‘rápido’ to another word that already exists but means something else.

She also now pronounces ‘gato’ (‘cat‘) from time to time as ‘gatch’ (rhyming with catch in English).

This is clearly a decision that she has made although I’m not entirely sure why. This seems to be her transferring a rule for words ending in ‘te’ in Portuguese and applying it to a word ending in ‘to’ instead. For example, ‘abacate’ (‘avocado‘) is pronounced more or less as ‘abacatch’ or ‘abacatchy’ (if it could be written in English).

Internalising grammatical rules

I assume (as someone who has very little grasp on language acquisition) that children internalise grammatical rules and that what jumps out at adults as grammatical mistakes are the exceptions to the rules that we had to be taught as children.

[When I say grammatical rules here I am talking about the organic rules that can be observed as functioning within a language not arbitrary rules imposed by one group such as ‘do not split infinitives’.]

So the reason that little ones say ‘fazeu’ instead of ‘fez’ (‘she doed‘ instead of ‘she did‘) is because the verb ‘fazer’ (‘to do‘) is irregular and therefore one of the (many) exceptions to the rule. Children internalise the general rule through hearing and then apply it generally.

So I would imagine that all language acquisition in fact requires some language teaching (of irregular verb endings and so on) from someone other than the child, unless there is a point where the child themself becomes aware that everyone is pronouncing or saying something differently and corrects themselves. As the potential is for this to occur through shaming and humiliation, I would prefer to avoid this for my daughter, although I would be interested to hear whether there is any research has been carried out on this.

Confusion with the third person singular

It is very common in Brazil for adults to refer to themselves in the third person when speaking to young children. I had forgotten that this happens in the UK too (‘Give that to Mummy, please‘ instead of ‘Give that to me, please‘) but in Brazil I’m sure it happens even more as you don’t have to be related to the child to be able to refer to yourself as ‘Tia / Tio’ (‘Aunty / Uncle‘) so you can easily say ‘Give that to Aunty, please‘ when in the UK it would be more common to say ‘Give that to me, please‘.

This is a long-winded way of explaining that our daughter has very few conversations with people who refer to themselves in the first person. She hears people use the first person when in adult conversation and when she listens to music or children’s programmes, and as a result of low exposure to the first person singular verb endings, it’s probably where she makes most mistakes as she often chooses the third person singular instead (presumably because she hears everyone saying it so much when referring to themselves).

I’m trying to remember to refer to myself in the first person singular as much as possible but mostly I forget and sometimes I only remember when I’m halfway through a sentence and although you can say ‘Dá para mim, por favor’ (‘Give that to me, please‘) you cannot say ‘Pode ajudar a mim, por favor’ (‘Can you help to me, please?‘) you have to say ‘Pode me ajudar, por favor’?.

So you have to have already thought to the end of the sentence and readjusted it to the first person singular before you start, which is a challenge. So this may account for her inconsistency with reliably choosing the first person singular verb endings.

Over-generalisation

But at the same time she seems to have started over-generalising the use of the verb ending from two smaller groups of verbs. In Portuguese there are three types of verbs. Infinitives end in -AR, -ER or -IR. As far as I remember the -AR group is the largest so you would think that our daughter would have a better grip on the formation of these verbs as presumably she has heard more -AR verbs being conjugated in her short life.

She used to be able to reliably form the -AR verbs that we use frequently, and when she got it wrong it would be because she’d chosen the third person singular instead.

So instead of saying ‘fechei a porta’ (‘I shut the door‘) she would say ‘fechou a porta’ (‘she shut the door‘). Now she has started saying ‘fechi a porta’ which I can’t render in English because she has used the root of an -AR verb and paired it with the first person singular ending of an -ER or -IR verb (like ‘comi’ (‘I ate‘) or ‘abri’ (‘I opened‘)). If she were using a verb conjugation table she would be looking at the right line (first person singular) but choosing the wrong column (verb group) to conjugate her verbs.

I assume that this is happening because she has absorbed the workings of the first person singular more or less reliably for the majority verb group (-AR verbs) (taking into account the interference from the third person singular) and is now (unconsciously) getting her head round the workings of the minority verb groups (-ER and -IR verbs) and is doing so by over-applying her new knowledge.

I realise that I got a bit carried away here so I will save my other observations about trying out new language and moments of observable translation for some other posts!

I would love to hear your thoughts! Have you noticed any patterns in the language of young children around you (multilingual or otherwise)? Have the patterns changed at all?

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