Learning to Speak: Toddlers Develop Individualized Rules for Grammar, Computer-Based Research Shows

Oct. 5, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — Using advanced computer modeling and statistical analysis, a University of Texas at Austin linguistics professor has found that toddlers develop their own individual structures for using language that are very different from what we traditionally think of as grammar.

"Grammars have different forms in development," says Colin Bannard, assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics. "We shouldn't assume a child's grammar is anything like our traditional notion of what grammar is."

In a study released today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bannard and Elena Lieven and Michael Tomasello, two colleagues working at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, developed a computer program to analyze 60 hours worth of conversations that two English-speaking toddlers—Brian and Annie—had with their parents after turning two and again after turning three.

The computer model did not assume the children knew any of the basic rules of language, such as the use of nouns and verbs. Instead, it used the toddlers' early conversations after each birthday to predict the structure of their subsequent conversations.

Rather than adhering to the kinds of rules for English linguists have identified, the toddlers developed their own basic formulas for speaking with slots into which they could put particular kinds of words. At age two, those formulas—which were different for each child—were found to predict the children's subsequent speech better than a more traditional grammar.

Many researchers have long believed that even young children's earliest language derives from an understanding of an abstract grammar that includes categories like nouns and verbs and a set of rules for combining them to produce sentences.

"How exactly a child learned these was considered something of a mystery and so it was declared by some that they must be innate," Bannard says. "However there is increasing evidence that children's path to grammar is a gradual and piecemeal process."

The findings also show that, between the ages of two and three, children learn to better understand and apply the adult rules of grammar, particularly by using verbs more flexibly.

This is the first major study of children's language development that uses advanced computer modeling to analyze, understand and predict children's utterances based on daily recordings of their language use.

"One thing that is very important about this work is Dr. Bannard's sophisticated use of computational and statistical techniques to analyze child language data," says Richard P. Meier, chair of the Linguistics Department.

Bannard hopes to use such methods more extensively.

"Here we have a technique for modeling grammar I'd like to apply to more children, to look at them more continuously from age two to age three, to apply rigorous statistics to learn what a child knows," Bannard says.

For more information, contact: Gary Susswein, Office of the President, 512-471-4945; Colin Bannard, Department of Linguistics, 512-471-9022.

7 Comments to "Learning to Speak: Toddlers Develop Individualized Rules for Grammar, Computer-Based Research Shows"

1.  kerry hogue said on Oct. 8, 2009

Steven Pinker, author of "The Stuff of Thought," needs to read this study. It might cause him to do a sequel to one of his chapters.

2.  dunya mccammon said on Oct. 8, 2009

I've found with my granddaughter, now 4 years, that she adds "ed" to make her own past tense of verbs: he getted, she forgotted, I.... She'll hesitate then with the word she wants to make past tense. On the other hand, she uses adverbs rather more correctly. It's wonderful to observe. I agree with the premise: piecemeal, gradual.

3.  Dr. Elizabeth C. Ramirez said on Oct. 8, 2009

This is such an interesting entry. My nephew just turned two in late August, and my sister and I have noticed his increasing use of verbs and complete sentences. He not only speaks in this manner more and more, but we can see him thinking about, saying, correcting and adjusting what he has said, in order to arrive at the correct usage. My sister taught kindergarten and 1st grade for many years in San Antonio and then was one of the lead teachers in one of the earliest bilingual programs in Galveston, Texas, and she is now the mother of a daughter who is doing a fellowship at the Mayo in Rochester after early admit at Brown's medical school track. The parents of Diego are two attorneys in their early 30s. I am a fine arts specialist in K-12 in the Edgewood Independent School District, after more than 20 years in higher education. My Ph.D. is from UT Austin. We would all like more information on this linguistics study, and especially suggestions and/or recommendations on how to nurture and develop it. Thank you for this entry.

4.  Chelsea Walker said on Oct. 9, 2009

Having raised twins who developed their own language (and subsequently dropped it), it would be very interesting to see how your application worked with the language that most twins develop on their own.

5.  Julie Basco said on Oct. 9, 2009

Go, Texas! What starts here changes the world!

Julie Basco, M.A., The University of Texas at Austin, 1987

6.  Andrew Maly said on Oct. 11, 2009

This is very interesting, but not too surprising in accordance with learning patterns of the brain. This is very characteristic in accordance with the connecting systems of the dentritic cells in the brain. You'll also find that environmental surroundings and behaviors of the parents enable the child to create their own behavioral patterns. Because of this, everyone learns in their own way and everyone has a unique degree and variations of intake through the senses. This will all be proven in time but the neatest thing is that you can actually do all of these studies outside of the brain in a computer-simulated environment. I wonder what implications there are for simulating such things in a controlled environment?

P.S. I'm very interested in this sort of work. I finish my master's degree in December at the University of Melbourne, and I move back to Texas. If you all need any extra assistance or if there is any way that I might take part in the studies, please feel free to e-mail me back :) I'd love to join the fun! Good luck!

Andrew Maly

7.  KC Campbell said on Dec. 18, 2009

My first and third child both spoke in their own language for awhile. My third child is now nearly three and while he's getting easier for us mere mortals to understand, he continues to speak volumes that we cannot. I can translate some of it, but certainly not all. Any studies on that? If you would like some recordings of this, let me know. We'd be happy to help!

Also, my middle child, now four and a half, uses her own grammar as described in the study to a "T."

Oh, and hook 'em, Horns!