Introduction in Spanish...
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Analysis of language development in bilingual children 2.

Continued from page 1...


Question forming and grammar morpheme progression in bilinguals.

A bilingual child's drawing to illustrate language analysis.

Listening 4...

(The hamster has a large transparent plastic ball he can get into and propel himself around the room in for exercise.)
Me: Shall we put him in the ball?
Carmen: Ok.
Me: Where's the ball?
Carmen: I get it.
Me: You're going to get it. There, I'll hold him...
...There you are! There he goes! Look! Whoa! (Laughs).
Carmen: You see the bottom!*
Me: Yes, you see the bottom...** He rocks about in the ball, doesn't he? There he goes walking about in the ball. The transparent plastic ball...
Carmen: And one day... the hamster... when he was in the ball...
Me: Yeah.
Carmen: The hamster, he do that one day and I see a pooh-pooh come.
Me: Oh! right!
Carmen: Ee! Disgusting!
Me: Yeah.
Carmen: That big one. Remember?
Me: Oh, right! That big pooh he did.
Carmen: Yes. Remember?
Me: Yes. I remember that. (I didn't remember at all!)
Carmen: Who-a! The pooh-pooh was... Why the hamster he don't do?... Why the hamster he do big pooh-poohs?
Me: Well... (I tried to give an explanation).
Carmen: ...and one day with my friend Carla...
Me: Yeah?
Carmen: You know what I did?
Me: No...

* "Bottom" here meaning "genitalia".

** I sometimes mirror Carmen's own infant talk. I feel I should correct this habit but on occasions I find it a natural and difficult to avoid response.

Question forming 1.

Question constructions start with one word phrases and formulaic chunks: Carmen's "remember?" is an easy way to ask this question employing elipsis (omission of "do you").  Later, we'll hear "what's that?" "what's a...?"; "what" usually being the first "wh" word to emerge in children's vocabulary.

The use of "why" comes quite late in the order of "wh" words in native speaker of English but when it comes, it can be used very frequently. According to Lightbown and Spada this is to elicit more conversational exchanges from the parents.

Carmen does sometimes front her questions with auxiliary "do", eg. "Do you know?" but here she does not. It seems adding two new grammatical morphemes at the same time is just too much or perhaps she fails to recognize it as a question. She includes one of her rare past tense verbs instead: "You know what I did?"

Lightbown and Spada also comment on how a child may realize that some marker is required to make questions but fail to grasp the fact that word order must change too, so we get: "why the hamster he don't do...?"; "why the hamster he do...?".

Grammatical morpheme progression and bilingual children.

There is one important anomaly to point out here about morpheme patterns in bilingual children like Carmen. I observed that 8 months ago (see Output Techniques audio 4) she was using "why": "Why's she sad?" yet I'm still having to prompt more basic questions forms by getting her to repeat words like "what" (Output Techniques audio 1). My explanation for this is that the progression of some grammatical morphemes is related to cognitive development and therefore at nearly four-and-a-half years old (eight months ago), Carmen had been using "why" in Spanish for some time already. Carmen's English language development lags behind her Spanish language progress but her cognitive advancement is of child of four.


Vocabulary, negatives and Saxon genitive.

Morpheme development in bilingual children.

Listening 5...

(While the hamster is gallivanting around the living-room in his ball, Carmen shows me some medals.)
Me: Now you're showing me these medals, aren't you? What are these medals for?
Carmen: It's for... It's of... of the Doctor Olfi.
Me: Doctor Astolfi?
Carmen: Yes.
Me: Oh, he gave you these, did he? Oh, I see. And what's that on the medal?
Carmen: Eh, pinguin! (In Spanish: pingüino).
Me: A penguin. All right.
Carmen: Pero... (Spanish)
Me: What's he got...?
Carmen: (shouts to correct herself) A penguin! A penguin! Sorry!
Me: A penguin. That's right. That's it. What's he got in his hand? What's he holding?
Carmen: He holding for put it in your mouth.
Me: What is that?
Carmen: I don't know. Eh...
Me: To put in your mouth? A th... th... th...
Carmen: A thermometer.
Me: A thermometer. Oh, right! Yes, you're right. Right. ....There's Hamster over there. Hamster! Come this way!
Carmen: He can't hear you. I know. HAMSTER!!!!


Although it is often debatable whether Spanish influences Carmen's English grammar, it must be difficult to refute the influence of Spanish in her English vocabulary utterances. The word "pinguin" is a sort of Spanglish. What is encouraging from my point of view is Carmen's insistence in correcting her own pronunciation error and, surprisingly, even apologizing for it!

I also continue to use the technique for eliciting vocabulary I have mentioned in a previous article; that of uttering the first sound. So much vocabulary is latent in a child's head the slightest clue is sufficient to expose it: "A th... th... th..." "thermometer".

Negation 2.

Carmen successfully uses "can't": "he can't hear you". Unlike "don't/doesn't" there is no third person form of "can" so the negative sounds perfectly correct.

Saxon genitive.

Brown places the Saxon genitive (possessive "s"): "Doctor Astolfi's medals" as a morpheme learnt before the articles (a, an, the). However, in Carmen's case, she uses the articles well (except for "an") but fails to use the Saxon genitive at all: "It's of the Doctor Olfi." She prefers the preposition possessive (with "of"). This is similar to the Spanish structure so is there a direct influence there? I've yet to discover whether possessive "of" is also part of morpheme development in English monolinguals. On the other hand, she comes close to the Saxon genitive structure (see Listening 1) when she says "What are you doing with Mummy phone?" But this is very new in Carmen's English and I had never heard it before.


Question forms and listening comprehension ability.

How bilingual children develop grammar.

Listening 6...

(Carmen pushes the hamster into a round igloo-shaped house that he often sleeps in.)
Me: Where have you put him?
Carmen: Here!
Me: What's that?
Carmen: A bo... Eh, for for sleep in.
Me: Kinda like an igloo, isn't it?
Carmen: Eh?
Me: Like a little igloo.
Carmen: What is a igloo?
Me: Well, an igloo is like a little house where the Eskimos sleep.
Carmen: What is a Eskimo?
Me: Well, Eskimos are people who live in the North Pole and... and they...
Carmen: Like Father Christmas!
Me: Well. Not exactly. But they live in houses made of snow which are round like that... round...
Carmen: Ah! I know. I know. I know what it is.
Me: You do?
Carmen: Yes. They are... those... those things the... mmm, mmm... like... circles... there are... Ay! How (do) you say? like... bears in the snow.
Me: Well, actually! You mean... the bears... we saw that on a documentary... A little house under the snow. Well, it is like that, actually. You're right, yes...! Sort of round...**
Carmen: I know because I see it in the television when Dora.*

*Dora the Explorer (US educational cartoon). Who needs David Attenborough's documentaries when you have Dora?!

**Reference to hibernating grizzly bears (or were they polar bears giving birth?).

Question forming 2.

We can see here why "what" is probably one of the first "wh" words to be learnt. It is essential for a child to ask about new vocabulary and "what" is the word they need. Through questioning Carmen manages to get an approximate idea of what an "igloo" is. She also uses accompanying clarifying words and expressions: comparative "like..."; "those things" and "how do you say?", which help her describe a new concept of what an igloo is related to her own experiences that she understands.

Listening comprehension.

Examples like the extracts mentioned above give a huge insight into a child's listening comprehension of the parts of a sentence:

Me: Kinda like an igloo, isn't it?
Carmen: Eh?
Like a little igloo.
Carmen: What is a igloo?
Me: Well, an igloo is like a little house where the Eskimos sleep.
Carmen: What is a Eskimo?
Me: Well, Eskimos are people who live in the North Pole...

There is no gist understanding here. Although I make no concessions to Carmen regarding speed of oral delivery, she accurately separates the words "igloo" and "Eskimo" from the other sentence parts and questions their meaning. Perhaps the long silent period that children learning their mother tongue go through before starting to speak allows far greater comprehension than ESL school learners who, forced to speak the foreign language from day one, rely on gist task listening practice to handle the comprehension of spoken utterances. Precision comprehension of spoken English ensures the child can pinpoint new vocabulary or vocabulary chunks with greater ease and thereby acquire them better.

Part 3: conclusions and advice to parents...

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