ConceptChildren acquire the Englishes they are exposed to
People who acquired English in early infancy, either monolingually (as is common in many Inner Circle contexts) or multilingually (the case for many people in Outer Circle contexts), don’t normally have much idea of how they did it. Can you remember anything about acquiring your own first language(s)?
The process of learning the forms of English occurs largely below the level of consciousness, as the child concentrates on the functions of language.
ActivityThe following are examples of the spontaneous talk of Barbara, a little girl growing up in the early 1990s in Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland (where the Titanic was built). They were recorded when she was four years and seven months old, before she started going to school, and are available online in the CHILDES database (Henry, 1995; Wilson and Henry, 1998).
A. Examples of Barbara’s speech:
1. she poured out a cup of tea and drinked it
2. I didn't went to the toilet
3. the clock ringed
4. will I do it again? [asking mother whether she should do a jigsaw puzzle again]
5. I […] don't eat them no more
Imagine Barbara was a student in your class, learning English as a second or foreign language and you had to correct her mistakes. What would you tell her are the ‘correct’ versions of her utterances?
FeedbackYou have probably corrected Barbara's utterances as follows:
B. 'Corrected' versions of Barbara's speech:
1. she poured out a cup of tea and drank it
2. I didn't go to the toilet
3. the clock rang
4. shall I do it again?
5. I […] don't eat them any more
These versions represent the forms used in 'Standard English', the ones you teach to your students and that textbooks present as 'correct'. For example, in the New Headway Upper-Intermediate Tests (Krantz, 2005), one question requires learners to correct the mistakes in a set of sentences, including the following (p. 55):
- ● I shouldn't have ate that last piece of cake.
- ● Shall we invite / Will we invite the neighbours to the party next week?
ActivityNow compare Barbara’s utterances with the following, spoken by her mother in the same speech event:
C. Examples of Barbara’s mother’s speech:
1. she's went and seen Santy yesterday
2. will I just stay with you and not work no more?
3. well will I get it for you?
What conclusions do you draw about the nature of Barbara’s ‘mistakes’?
FeedbackFrom a plurilithic perspective, it makes no sense to expect 'Standard English' forms from Barbara, if the language she hears around her is coded according to different norms. Her mother and other people she interacts with use a version of the language (Belfast English) which differs in significant ways from 'Standard English' in its pronunciation, grammar, and word forms.
Barbara's mother's utterances in C suggest, for example, that for users of Belfast English:
● went serves as the past participle of go (C1: she's went)
● negation may be doubly marked (C2: not work no more)
● modal will is used in first person questions (C2: will I just stay; C3: will I get it)
So Barbara's usage in A2, A4 and A5 are not mistakes. They follow the norms of the community she is growing up in. In fact, then, we can say that they are examples of successful learning.
The other forms used by Barbara that you probably corrected—drinked and ringed—don't occur in Belfast English, however. In this sense, then, they are mistakes. But they are examples of the positive kind of mistakes that linguists call overgeneralisation.
ActivityWhat do you think Barbara is said to be overgeneralising in A1 and A3?
FeedbackBarbara is overgeneralising her knowledge of other verbs used with the –ed suffix in past tense contexts. In her first recorded interaction in the CHILDES database (around 6000 words), for instance, she is exposed to around thirty different verbs with this suffix.
Many of these forms are repeated, and several of the verbs also appear many times without the suffix and with other suffixes. For example see figure 3.3.
Barbara uses her contextualised experience of these and other verb forms from previous interactions to produce forms like drinked and ringing, always in appropriate past time contexts (e.g. A1: poured and then drinked).
Linguists would claim that she has built these new forms on the basis of analogy with similar constructions. Some linguists would claim that this is evidence for Barbara's acquisition of a rule:
- ● TO FORM THE PAST TENSE OF A VERB, ADD –ed TO THE END OF IT
But because Inner Circle users of English have a different past tense form for these two verbs (in which the vowel changes from i to a), then the rule doesn't apply and she is said to have overgeneralised it in these cases.