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2. The natural process

The end-state

All learners of any language can expect to converge on a single grammar, and, in the case of English, agree that:

  • “You believe that it’s true?” and “You believe it’s true?” mean the same thing.
  • “The rabbit is ready to eat” means two things.
  • “Mightn’t the ball that won the match that the bookie keeps talking about have been being examined by the umpire?” is meaningful (even if it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue).

Some children will hear examples of at least the separate elements of all of these. But others may not. How does the convergence happen? 

Starting from square one

By a null hypothesis, the convergence has to have begun with the simplest possible forms. Although development does not always recapitulate evolution, there is often a relation. And in this case I propose, on acquisition evidence, that there is a very strong relation. There is another big question, on which linguists differ sharply, about what comes next. So there are different analyses of all three of the bulleted sentences above.

But for one (large) group of linguists they all contain elements which are not pronounced. These unpronounced elements are critical for the way these sentences are understood. But if that is so, there is yet another big question: When and how do children learn about the unpronounced elements?

I believe, as do many linguists who follow a suggestion first made by Noam Chomsky, that humans have evolved a mental structure which makes it possible for learners, even very small learners, to ‘hear’ elements which are not actually pronounced. In all cultures, this seemingly extraordinary feat is accomplished effortlessly and reliably before the age of ten.

This mental structure makes human beings different from any other animal.

The natural course of events

First there is a long period during which the child says only single words, for a period maybe only one word, or what Martin Braine called ‘holophrases’ – expressions which sound like they might contain more than one word – but not occurring on their own – like Ozah, as an expression of apparent curiosity, possibly modelled on “What’s that?”. Then, typically sometime between 18 and 21 months, words start to be put together. The child says something like “duck bath” with two elements relating to two significant entities in the child’s universe, such as, in this case, duck, and the duck’s place, in this case bath, in a primitive prototype of a phrase or sentence. Then between a week and two months after saying something like “Duck bath” most naturally interpreted as a simple ‘declarative’, as such structures are known, commenting on some apparent relation betwee the duck and the bath, the child either asks a question like “Where duck?” or answers a fully formed corresponding question by an adult like “Where’s your duck?” by an appropriate and plausible reference to place, possibly by a single word. But never in the opposite order. In other words, two word declaratives always precede one word answers to questions, even though the one word answer might seem simpler.

But this is only the beginning. In “Duck bath” there is no evidence of any awareness of definiteness in the references to either the duck or the bath. And in ‘Where duck?” there is no evidence of a copy on the right edge, but just a destination position by Move.

Most of the apparatus for speech and language is known by most children by the age of five. But as Carol Chomsky showed in 1969, there are subtle aspects of the grammar which are not mastered until nine or so. In 2002, I showed that for most children, the final stages of phonological acquisition are still normally in process at eight  or so.