It's All Chinese to Your Toddler

By Emily Bazelon
Sunday, August 27, 2006

My 3-year-old son, Simon, sees no point in the verb "to be." He says: "This my Superman costume" or "Where my Batman boot?"

I've always assumed he's just making a young 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 Yale linguist Charles Yang, however, Simon is mirroring the grammar of a different language. Hebrew, for example, doesn't use "is" or "are." If Simon asks "Where going?" he's really thinking like a speaker of Chinese, in which no subject is needed in some sentences.

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" that humans are born with, making them hard-wired to understand the way language works. Other linguists argue that the distinctions among languages can be described by a few dozen rules that involve binary choices: In English you state the subject, in Chinese you sometimes don't.

And so, Yang argues in his new book, "The Infinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World," the mistakes that Simon makes aren't the processing difficulties of an immature brain. They're the trial and error that 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. And research has shown that they are put off when adults mimic childlike speech. Ask your 2-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 Yale psychology professor who thinks the errors of baby talk are about short attention span and poor articulation, not rules or grammar.

Still, Chomsky praised Yang's work to me via e-mail, and it may explain some of the speech patterns of young children. And certainly Yang's book reinforces a point that has other support: Children carry the tools of speech with them and can sort out the finer points with less intervention than many parents think.

Of course, not every speech delay or error falls within the spectrum of normal development. But for most kids, the mistakes they make at 2 will be gone by 4. Whether they're on the early or late side is probably meaningless.

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. 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 eventually 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 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. All of which makes the effort we put into teaching our children to talk -- speaking clearly and in short sentences, praising their early words -- "a peculiarity of our culture," as Harris puts it. The linguist Steven Pinker has studied societies in which parents rarely talk to their infants and toddlers. Their 2-year-olds are behind on language compared with Western kids, but by 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 it's a good thing to encourage parents to engage their children and stimulate their developing neurons. There are other benefits to early speech, too: Simon, for example, is strong-willed, so it was a relief when he could express himself verbally. I may not always like what he has to say, but I prefer the words to incoherent wails.

Some parents address this problem creatively. Before their children can talk, they teach them to sign words such as "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, the intense focus on young talkers seems 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 well our children speak. But if early speech is more like a party trick than a measure of intelligence, then the cooing and the comparisons generate more anxiety than light.

I like Yang's book for making me reconsider 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. "And you will see that the 'errors' in their speech are inevitable and will go away in due time." How nice: I don't have to feel like a slacker for overlooking Simon's faulty English grammar. Instead, I can just marvel that he was born able to learn Chinese. Lucky baby.

Emily Bazelon writes about family issues for Slate, the online magazine at

© 2006 The Washington Post Company