Chatterfun News

Constructing Grammar when Learning a Second Language

By: Dr. E. Anne Shine
Assistant Professor of Writing
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Guest Contributor to Chatterfun

Most of us don’t remember much about learning to speak and perhaps only a little about learning to read. But, as parents, we can observe these processes taking place in our children. As a specialist in English as a Second Language (ESL), I was fascinated to watch the process of language acquisition in my children.

Much of what I had learned as a student was played out before my eyes. For a start, my daughter applied rules that she had internalized indiscriminately and in the process created some interesting constructions. The past tense was a minefield for her. By the age of two, she understood something about the ‘–ed’ constructions of the past tense and then, quite logically I felt, applied this understanding to words like ‘come’ creating, as many second language (L2) students do, the word ‘comed’.

Theoretically, she was building up her own grammar one linguistic feature at a time and testing it out. As a child she was not thinking about the process she was going through, she was just using language as best she could. ‘Comed’ may not have been accurate but it served her purpose at the time. Further exposure to this particular construction ultimately led her to the correct construction.

As parents, while our children are building up their grammars we may be tempted to correct them or to model the correct form back to them. But there is no certainty that either correction or modeling leads to acquisition of the correct linguistic construction. It is more likely that any carefully applied corrections are simply not noticed until the child has worked it out for themselves. In a sense, children construct their own grammar over time without paying any attention the notion of grammar; it is absorbed through use.

The same process applies to children learning a second language. A three year old little girl I know in Italy, leaning Italian and English is struggling with both the Italian and the English for mine and yours – mia and tua. The difficulty here is that when the child says, “Mine!” the adult says, “Yes, it’s yours.” This can confuse children over when to say mia and when to say tua and the same confusion can be seen in English.

This same child also says “This mia.” When a child starts to learn two or three languages at the same time, this mixing of the languages in the early years is absolutely normal and not a concern as it is usually sorted out by the age of four.

Millions of children all over the world manage to construct the grammars for two or three languages simultaneously seemingly absorbing the necessary information without any apparent struggle, but not without any mistakes. Adult learners, on the other hand, are learning consciously. The input they receive is often struggled with and consciously matched against their existing first language (L1) grammar. They may make similar mistakes to those observed in children; they may make quite different ones. Where children seldom attend to or appear to respond to adults modeling the correct construction, adult learners do respond only to promptly forget until enough exposure, experimentation and drill leads them to construct another piece of the language puzzle.

Basically, both children and adults go through the process of constructing their grammar but for adults it is a more conscious process.