The Infant Grammarian

The genius of baby talk.

My 3-year-old son, Simon, sees no point in the to be verb. “This my Superman costume,” he says. “Where my Batman boot?” I’ve always assumed he’s just making a small-child’s mistake, and if I don’t correct him, that’s mostly because it’s too much bother. According to a new book by the Yale linguist Charles Yang, however, Simon is mirroring the grammar of a different language. Hebrew doesn’t bother with is or are. When kids leave out the subject in the sentence “Where going?” they’re thinking like a speaker of Chinese, which drops topic words in some contexts.

Like almost everything in linguistics, Yang’s idea stems from Noam Chomsky’s theory that the human capacity for language is innate. Chomsky identified a “universal grammar,” meaning a way language generally works, that humans are born with. Other linguists argue that the distinctions among languages can be described by a few dozen rules, or parameters, that involve binary choices: In English you state the subject; in Chinese you sometimes don’t. And so, Yang argues in his new book, TheInfinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World, that the mistakes Simon and his peers make aren’t the processing difficulties of an immature brain. They’re the trial and error children go through as they discard the structure of other languages in favor of their own. “Only the grammar actually used in the child’s linguistic environment will not be contradicted, and only the fittest survives,” Yang writes.

The idea is a clever one. But aspects of it have met with skepticism since other linguists started working in this area years ago. Most children have the rudiments of English grammar down by their third birthday, even if they don’t use it. And research has shown that they are surprised and put off when adults mimic childlike speech. Ask your 2- or 3-year-old “Want go school?” and he’s likely to make a face at you. “Kids seem to know they’re speaking funny and differently from adults,” says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale who thinks the errors of baby talk are about short attention span and poor articulation, not parameters or grammars.

Still, Chomsky praised Yang’s work and book via e-mail, and Yang’s ideas may explain some of the speech patterns of small children. And he reinforces a point that there’s other support for: Children carry the tools of speech with them and can sort out the finer points of language with less intervention than many parents think. To be sure, not every speech delay or error falls within the spectrum of normal development. But for most kids, the mistakes they make at age 2 will be gone by age 4. Whether they’re on the early or late side of that window is probably meaningless.

Consider this example of handicapping a child’s speech development: In her book The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris tells the story of a 1933 experiment that a psychology professor and his wife conducted on their child. The couple wanted to see if a chimpanzee baby reared with a human one would act like the human. So they brought a 7-month-old chimp, Gua, to live with their son, Donald, when he was 10 months old. Gua didn’t much copy Donald. But Donald started barking for food like Gua. At 19 months, most American children can say more than 50 words and are beginning to form phrases. At 19 months, Donald could speak only three words. At that point, Gua went back to the zoo. And Donald went on to learn to talk—well enough to earn admission to Harvard Medical School.

Harris also points out that the hearing children of deaf couples learn to speak fluently. And immigrant children learn the language of the country they live in and speak without an accent, even if their parents speak to them at home only in their own native tongue. “Parents do not have to teach their children the language of their community; in fact—hard as it may be for you to accept this—they do not have to teach their children any language at all,” Harris writes. Kids need to hear speech to learn it, but they don’t necessarily need to hear it at home. And they don’t need their parents to correct them. The effort we put into teaching our own children to talk—speaking clearly and in short sentences, praising their early words, monitoring their grammar—are, as Harris puts it, “a peculiarity of our culture.” Linguist Steven Pinker has studied societies in which parents rarely talk to their infants and toddlers other than to scold or make a demand. Their 2-year-olds are behind on language compared to Western kids, but by age 4 they catch up.

So, what about the questions your child’s pediatrician asks each year: At 2, how many words does he know? At 3, how complex are his sentences? It’s going too far to dismiss all of this out of hand. My children’s former pediatrician wonders about the empirical support for the age-based markers of speech development, but he figures that it’s a good thing to encourage parents to engage their children and stimulate their developing neurons. There are other benefits to early speech: Simon is hugely strong-willed, so it was an enormous relief when he could express his wishes verbally. I may not always like what he has to say, but I prefer the words to incoherent wails of frustration.

Some parents address this problem creatively. Before their children can talk, they teach them to sign words like milk and more. I admire them. But I’d never be organized enough to join in. And while I’m all for neurons firing away (who isn’t?), the intense focus on young talkers often seems to me overblown. “She has so many words!” we coo about precocious toddlers—code for “she’s smart” or “you’re smart too, since you’re her mother.” Then there’s all the comparing of notes about how much or how well our children speak compared to other children. But if early speech is more like a party trick than a measure of intelligence or aptitude, then the cooing and the comparisons generate more anxiety than light.

I like Yang’s book for making me listen differently to Simon’s odd sentence constructions and for its laid-back message. “You will see that children are infinitely better at learning languages than we are,” he promises in the first chapter. “And you will see that the ‘errors’ in their speech are inevitable and will go away in due time.” I don’t have to feel like a slacker for overlooking Simon’s faulty English grammar. Instead I can marvel that he was born knowing how to learn Chinese. Lucky baby, to have a human mind.