Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Capturing some features of Gracese before the New Year

It's been a while since I posted on the evolution of Gracese. Thinking back to a year ago, I realize that this blog is all the record I really have of changes in her language -- my own memory proves far from a reliable tool. That reflection makes me realize I should be blogging her language much more frequently if I want to remember anything at all.

In that spirit, here are some unique features of Gracese as of 12/28/2010.

1st. The incredible, flexible why question
At first I thought this was something common to all 2/3 year olds, but I now believe that my darling Grace asks more why questions per hour than any other creature on the planet. Among my favorite are the questions where she asks about her own motives "Why did I do that." Here's a brief taxonomy of Grace's why questions:
  • Know what's going on with everyone at all times: Why did Grampa go to the basement.
  • Understand full context of all actions at all times: Why did Grampa go to the basement to get a hammer?
  • Confirm what she has just learned from asking a "why" question: Why did Grampa go down to the basement because he needed to get a hammer to help Uncle Dave?
  • Make a Veiled request: Why did you go to the kitchen? (when she suspects I just went to get a cookie and would like one herself)
  • Point out humorous situation: Why did Clara think I wanted the doll! (when Clara brings her a doll over and over)
  • Process her own bad behavior: Why did I want to eat in that room? (when she's just been eating in grandparent's living room where eating is forbidden)
  • Process own good behavior: Why did I want to share with Clara!
  • Learn about the world: Why did grandpa say there's a deer in the back yard?
  • Process own mistaken perception of the world: Why did I say there were reindeer in the backyard earlier?
  • Clarify parent's explanation of own mistaken perception of the world: Why did I say there were reindeer in the backyard earlier because it's christmastime?
  • Process parent's explanation of own mistaken perception of the world: Why did I say there were reindeer in the backyard earlier because we talk a lot about reindeer at christmastime?
2nd. Total Refusal to Make a Direct Request
This fits more into social learning and pragmatics than grammar, but it's astonished me this year to see that before the age of three Grace has learned that making a direct request is risky business, to be avoided at nearly all costs. Of course, this prohibition is codified in the way we ask questions and make requests -- "Would you mind...", "Could I bother you to...", etc. -- but I would have thought that child would learn these questions as mere forms and that the basic logic that accompanies them (e.g. that in most circumstances there is no polite way to make a request of another person) would come much later. Not so.

Here is a typical conversation with Grace:
Parent: Grace, what would you like to eat?
Grace: I don't know.
P: Would you like some cottage cheese?
G: No.
P: Would you like a cracker?
G: No.
P: What would you like?
G: You can just give me something.
P: serves something
G: Why did you give me something?
P: I thought you'd like it. Do you want it?
G: Can you tell me?
P: Would you like something else?
G: Can you tell me what I would want?
P: No, I don't know what you want. What would you like?
G: I was thinking you could tell me what I would like.
P: Were you hoping to have a cookie.
G: (eyes light-up) Yes!

I'm pretty sure that throughout this interaction, Grace believes that parent knows that she wants a cookie and that she has to do the dance of indirection correctly in order to get one. This is actually rarely the case -- usually we're simply frustrated that she refuses to say what she wants. Now, at 3 years and 2 months old, Grace almost never says what she wants. And I dare say we almost never say "no" to her, so it's not like this is coming from a long history of failed direct requests...

3rd. Grace's delightful Christmas semantic innovation: "make ideas"
This one is short and charming. About half-way into present opening, Grace caught onto and thoroughly enjoyed the part where before opening the present we guess what might be in it (we were making up particularly absurd and silly guesses for her amusement). Before opening a present, Grace began to request we start guessing by saying: "Let's make ideas about it."

Later in the day, she switched to "let's make up ideas" which became much less charming. How quickly they learn!

4th: Grace uses the past tense instead of the infinitive with "did" questions

Grace has used "do" correctly to ask questions for quite a long time. I've often wondered, however, if she understands the somewhat complicated "DO + INFINTIVE" construction the same way we do (where we first form "DO + INF" then split it apart to form a question) or if she thinks that "DO" is simply a question particle (like "ma" in Mandarin or "ne" in Latin).

I suppose she can't think "do" is merely a particle -- she conjugates "do" correctly as a verb (using do/does/did appropriately). However, interestingly, she frequently also puts the verb that should be in the infinitive in the past tense when making "did" questions, such as:

"Did you went to the store"
"Why did I wanted that?"

I haven't really adequately researched what's going on here. I wonder if there are any other constructions that allow two tensed verbs in this way, without a subordinating structure and without any coordination going on. I also need to focus more on just what Grace is doing. After Grace's nap today I'll have to try to get her to say a third-person present-tense question (the only kind where the tensed verb would look different from the infintive) so that I can see if she says something like "Does Clara likes to eat?" I should also tease out whether she in fact uses the tensed past-tense verb with both "Wh-" questions and yes/no questions as my examples above suggest (I can't attest she uttered those actual sentences, just ones like that).

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