First Language Acquisition observed up-close & personal

It’s great to have my two grandsons move in with us. It also provides some fun First Language Acquisition (FLA) observations. e.g. this morning, the 4 y.o. said of the pancakes, “That’s the last one?”

Most of us teach languages where the adjective can be used as a noun, the so-called substantival adjective. But English uses the word ’one’ to make that transformation in part of speech from adjective to noun. That’s why the use of adjectives as nouns without ’one’ sounds vaguely foreign or high-flown e.g. ’the poor shall always be with us’, ’the rich must pay’ (yep, me and Barack are socialists), ’the first shall be last…’ etc.

So it’s interesting to watch young acquirers acquire these forms and usages which are often not taught explicitly in ESL classes, at least not from what I’ve observed b/c the ESL teaches often do not know these things and so spend their time on irregular verbs, as if ’I buyed it yesterday’ would be incomprehensible whereas ’give me hot’ is incomprehensible without the article and one support in ’give me the hot one’. I could go on forever, thinking of nonsense like my Pakistani friend desperate to become idiomatic in English in preparation for her teaching certificate for elementary (school) and spending wads of time on the lie/lay distinction. Gad!

This derives, no doubt, from insecure middle-class teachers fleeing their hillbilly roots, the Tobacco Road origins where, like my mother, they said, “A man come yesterday to the door” or “He throwed it out the window”. For them, the little variations in past tense formers served as social markers, not really linguistic ones (NB: one support). So they assume the foreigners need the same sort of marker so as not to be stigmatized as they would be, forgetting that most Americans would put foreigners in a different sociolinguistic category from native speakers saying “I done it”.

My granddaughter recently showed just how complex English constructions are and how long it takes fror FLA learners to get: she said something like, “I know when is he at work”. She has taken the direct question form, “When is he at work ?” and stuck it into the indirect question slot with any transformation. “I know when he is at work” is the well-formed version of that indirect question.

Indirect questions can be tricky as in Latin, e.g., where the word order is the same but the verb of the I.Q. clause shifts into the subjunctive. For Romantic types, it looks like this: “Quintus Marcum pulsat” [Q. hits M.] but “Nescio cur Q. M. pulset” [I don’t know why Q. hits M.]

In AAVE [African-American Vernacular English], I.Q. introduced by ’if’ in SE [Standard English] do not get transformed, so SE I wanted to know if he could go < Could he go? is in AAVE I wanted to know could he go. It’s subtle, so that when SE speakers are asked to repeat the phrase in AAVE, they transform ’...could he go’ into ’...if he could go.’ and believe they have accurately repeated the phrase. It works the other way to, with AAVE speakers deleting the ’if’ and maintaining the question order ’could he go’, without realizing they have changed the utterance in repeating it. On the way down the stairs, the 4 y.o. was teasing me by saying "the light turned on itself" b/c I’m always trying to get them to stop turning lights on in broad daylight. Analyzing that is very tricky, since it could be a reflexive (the light turned itself on) or an emphatic (the light itself turned on) or a matter of deletion (the light turned on by itself), with the last being the most likely in this context. Again, this is another item that is regularly neglected in teaching English. For fl teachers, the problem arises esp with languages like the Romance and Germanic where the reflexive pronoun often serves as a marker of the middle voice but is explained only as a reflexive, just one of its many uses. Further complicating the picture for Anglophones is the fact that English uses the ’-self’ reflexive in pretty restricted ways and contexts, with most reflexives and middle voice verbs being unmarked, e.g. he washed or he washed up, they crowded the hall where languages like Spanish require a reflexive form. The use of the reflexive in Eng = ’they crowded themselves into the hall’ gives a different sense, a sense of forcing and pushing their way into the crowd that was already in the hall. I would be interested in seeing how others might translate into Spanish "He looked into the water and saw his own reflection/image". Would ’he looked’ be miro or se miro? vio or se vio? I don’t have enough Spanish to be able to say what sounds right.

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