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Analysis of language development in bilingual children 1.

Date of writing: 8th June 2014.
Age of subject: 4 years and 11 months.

Grammatical morpheme development in monolingual children.

When your child reaches the multi-word communication level, it is interesting and useful to assess progress in the second weaker language (L1b) by analysing the child's grammatical morphemes. There have been many studies of morpheme development in mother tongue acquisition among very young children and a more or less predictable morpheme pattern has been established. In the 1960's Roger Brown made a list of these English grammatical morphemes set out in the approximate order the child acquires them. For example, "ing" forms are usually acquired before plurals and then come the irregular past forms, etc. Furthermore, later researchers have also observed the progressive phases in the perfection of question forming or the negation of verbs in monolingual children.

What shapes grammatical morphemes in the bilingual child?

The question for us parents of children receiving exposure to more than one language at home is whether second language development follows a similar pattern of acquisition to that seen in the monolingual child as though it were another mother tongue or whether grammar morpheme learning is determined by the influence of the stronger first language (L1a) or perhaps both factors are influential.

The above consideration may sound rather academic to most and perhaps of little practical use to the parents of bilingual children. However, morpheme development allows us to evaluate a bilingual child's progress in the correct way and throws new light on the "wrong grammar/right grammar" supposition.

Audio files of a bilingual child speaking English.

In the following mp3 audio files of my daughter Carmen's English speech (English being the weaker of the two languages she is learning or L1b) I should like to underline some examples of morpheme development and analyse their possible origins. The topic is a discussion over Carmen's hamster.


Progressive and future forms.

Grammar morpheme analysis

Listening 1...

(We're both sitting on the floor with Carmen's hamster between us and out of his cage.)
Me: Tell me about the hamster, then.
Carmen: What you doing with Mummy phone? (She sees the mobile phone where I'm recording from.)
Me: I'm recording you talking about the hamster.
Carmen: Mira! (Spanish)
Me: No, don't put him on the... on the mobile phone. What's he going to do then?
Carmen: He going to Daddy (she puts the hamster on my lap). And he going to go into clock (she now puts the hamster on my wristwatch).

Progressive forms.

According to Lightbown and Spada (1999), the progressive verb forms (he is doing) are the first tense aspects to be learnt (after basic present simple or infinitive use: "he go") but without the accompanying auxiliary "be". So Carmen says "What you doing?"; "He going to Daddy". These early structures seem to correspond to English mother tongue development as the parallel Spanish construction ¿qué estás haciendo? may also be ¿qué haces? for progressive use and él está yendo is just not used at all.

Future forms.

For a long time now Carmen has been using the "going to" structure for future. Again the copula (linking verb "to be" auxiliary is missing) but she accurately uses the structure for some immediate future or plan: "he going to go". Spanish va a ir presents a similar structure but perhaps having already learnt the "ing" form for progressive, the influence comes from English rather than Spanish.


Third person 's', articles and past progressive.

A bilingual child's drawing to illustrate language learning.

Listening 2...

(We've been discussing whether the hamster is English or Spanish. I try to convince Carmen he's English so she'll talk to him in English. I need more allies!)

Carmen: Pero, (Spanish) he know what in Spanish?*
Me: No. No, he doesn't.
Carmen: He know what is a pen?
Me: Well, I imagine he doesn't really know what a pen is because he doesn't know how to write, does he?
Carmen: (teaching the hamster Spanish and showing him a pencil) La-piz (Spanish).
Me: No, don't teach him Spanish! He's got to practise his English, hasn't he?
Carmen: Disgusting. (Carmen giving pencils for the hamster to lick.) He was doing this (does licking gesture).
Me: He was licking that? Well, you shouldn't give him those things, should you?
Carmen: Es que... (Spanish) he had/have to know what is pen.
Me: Why does he have to know that?
Carmen: Because, yes.

*She means "does he know what it is in Spanish?"

Third person 's' (he knows).

According to Brown the third person singular 's' comes fairly late in the morpheme acquisition list. The general consensus of opinion among researchers is that second language (L2) morpheme acquisition follows a similar pattern to mother tongue learning patterns. It is indeed true that my own EFL students may forget the third person 's' even at advanced levels. Carmen hasn't mastered it at all: "he know what in Spanish?"; "He know what is a pen?"

Articles (a, an, the).

Carmen seems to be using the indirect article 'a', which is below the middle of the acquisition list: "He know what is a pen?". Though later she omits it: "he had/have to know what is pen. In the next recording, we also see Carmen successfully uses the direct article (the) too: "I'm going to show the hamster..."

Past progressive (he was doing).

I detected the past progressive with the copula (he was doing) was Carmen's first expression in tenses (time) well before any past simple use (he did, he looked). She says in the recording: "He was doing this".


Prepositions + "ing" and negation.

Analysing morphemes in bilinguals.

Listening 3...

Me: What else does he use his hands for?
Carmen: Oooh... (talking to hamster). For do this (does pawing action in the air) in the ball.
Me: In the ball? That's right. Ok.
Carmen: And he... and he get a pen.
Me: A pen?
Carmen: Look! I'm going to show the hamster what is a pen. He don't know what is a pen.

For + "ing" form of verb (he uses his hands for eating)

Despite the fact that Carmen uses the "ing" form for progressive actions, she uses the infinitive after prepositions like "for": "for do this". This does sound like a direct influence from Spanish para hacer esto.

Negation 1.

Carmen has progressed from earlier "That's a no beetle" (see recording 2b) and "something no very good" (see audio 3). Yet she has been using the "don't" structure for some time, see "don't hit me" (Snow White in audio 7) but perhaps the utterances are often set phrases such as "I don't know" (See audio 7). What I have never heard is the use of the third person form "doesn't" so she says: "he don't know".

Interestingly, all English children apparently begin to negate with "no + infinitive", eg. "Mummy no go"; "box no open". Carmen used this form too in earlier stages and it was tempting to think the influence was from Spanish: Mami no va; caja no abre; however, as this is also a native English grammar morpheme stage, it is difficult to know where the influence originates.

PART 2: This article continues with more exciting mp3 recording here...



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