3.1 First Language Acquisition



Children 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.


activity  Activity

The 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).

  • Figure 3.2: Location of Belfast

    [Source: adapted from Alphathon]

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?


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.

    (Compare this with A2/B2.) Another question asks learners to ‘[c]hoose the correct verb form’ and includes the following item (p. 24):

      Shall we invite / Will we invite the neighbours to the party next week?

(Compare this with A4/B4.)


activity  Activity

Now 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’?


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.


activity  Activity

What do you think Barbara is said to be overgeneralising in A1 and A3?