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How do native English children acquire irregular verbs?
The process of how children acquire their first language is a widely investigated phenomenon. Some researchers and experts agree that every child has a special language learning device, which enables them to learn a language very effectively. Numerous researches have been conducted on the different stages of first language acquisition. One of these stages is the process of verb acquisition. Children usually make errors when trying to use the past tense forms of irregular verbs, but later on these errors disappear, as they acquire the correct forms. In this paper I will, firstly demonstrate the stages of first language acquisition and place the phase of verb acquisition, then I will explain the most common mistake children make with irregular past tenses, and lastly, I will give an explanation to this phenomenon, and show the consequence it could possibly have.
According to Pinker (1994) when a child is born it can distinguish all the phonemes of the world's languages, even if there is no distinction in their mother tongue. By reaching ten months of age, however, they will have learned the sounds used in their language, and will not have a universal knowledge of sounds anymore, just like adults. Children learn to understand speech between two month and their first birthday. They start to produce syllables in between this time span, at around their seventh month. This phase is called babbling. Then, they begin to use single, isolated words when they are one year old, and with eighteen months, their vocabulary starts to grow very quickly, and syntax also begins with combining words. When they reach their second year the development in all fields of language learning is very rapid, and as Pinker (1994) states, with three years a child is a "grammatical genius" (p. 276). For a better overview we could name the stages as follows: "Syllable Babbling, Gibberish Babbling, One-Word-Utterances, Two-Word-String, and All Hell Breaks Loose" (Pinker, 1994, p. 269).
The acquisition of verbs usually takes place later than that of nouns (Harris, Meints and Plunkett, 2008). There are two types of verbs: regular verbs and irregular verbs. In order to produce the past tenses of verbs, Redman and Rice (2001) point out, that "children need to acquire the morphophonological component of past tense, the rules for producing the various forms associated with past tense" (p. 655). This means, that they have to learn that the past tense is constructed by adding -ed to the stem, and that there are irregular verbs, which are exceptions to the rule, and are produced differently. Learning to produce the past tense of regular verbs is usually not a problem for children, because they only have to know one rule, and be able to apply it. The problem is with irregular verbs, because there is no rule there, which can be applied. The mistake children commonly make when trying to use the past tense of irregular verbs is called overregularization. This can occur whan the child already knows, that in order to express past tense, -ed has to be added to the stem of the verb, and applies this rule, incorrectly, to irregular verbs as well (Matthews and Theakston, 2006).
There is an explanation to this phenomenon. According to Pinker (1994), irregular verb forms have to be memorized independently, linked together as word pairs, and if the correct form cannot be retrieved from memory, the general rule of adding -ed is applied. This substitution can occur, because regular inflection is a "symbol-combination rule" and "does not need access to the contents of memory" (Pinker, 2001, p. 19). In the English language there are about 180 irregular verbs, which originate from Old and Middle English. There used to be about twice as many, but adults also tend to forget that a verb is irregular, especially if it is not a common, often used verb, and start to use it as a regular verb (Pinker, 1994). Therefore, the amount of regular verbs is increasing, while that of irregular ones is decreasing.
It can be concluded then, that verb acquisition starts between the child's first and second birthday, somewhat after noun acquisition. When using the past tense of verbs, children have to know the rule which is used with regular verbs, and that there are irregular verbs, which are produced differently. However, they tend to apply the general rule, which is used for regular verbs, also for irregular verbs. This is probably so, because there is no rule for generating the past tense of irregular verbs, so they have to be memorized as pairs of words, and if the child cannot remember the right form, or the other half of the word pair, it simply applies the rule it knows, and generates a regular past tensed verb. Irregular verbs, that are not often used, might stay in the child's lexicon as regular ones, and this can cause the increase of regular verbs and the decrease of irregular verbs.
Harris, P. L., Meints, K., & Plunkett, K. (2008). Eating apples and houseplants: Typicality constraints on thematic roles in early verb learning. Language and Cognitive Processes, 23, 434-463.
Matthews, D. E., & Theakston, A. L. (2006). Errors of omission in English-speaking children's production of plurals and the past tense: The effects of frequency, phonology, and competition. Cognitive Science, 30, 1027-1052.
Pinker, S. (1994). Baby born talking-Describes Heaven. In The language instinct (pp. 262-296). London, England: Penguin Books.
Pinker, S. (2001). Words and rules. Eye on Psi Chi, 14-19.
Redmond, S. M., & Rice, M. L. (2001). Detection of irregular verb violations by children with and without SLI. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 44, 655-669.