There is a myth out there that adults make language errors forever, while kids just effortlessly absorb whatever they hear.
Now, I’m no specialist in childhood learning, but I am here, backed up with recently acquired anecdotal evidence, to tell you that kids do not just pick up languages–even their mother tongues–perfectly or effortlessly. They push through much trial and error, not to mention repetition.
The following examples come from Gideon, a three and a half year old, so far monolingual, English-speaking child.
“Flagging tape” (pronunciation example)
We were hiking up the side of a mountain, tracing our way over rocks and between cypress trees, when I noticed the first neon strands of flagging tape. Hurrah! Saved by a synthetic guide. I pointed it out and said it at the same time.
Gideon latched on to the new word with his usual fervour. He said it again and again. He became the flagging tape pointer-outer. We even started chanting it under our breaths, perhaps around the time dehydration set in: “Fla-gging tape. Fla-gging tape. Fla-gging tape.” The funny thing was, Gideon more than half the time pronounced it as “flogging tape.” He continued even after we implicitly corrected him by repeating it correctly, and explicitly corrected him by explaining the source of the word in “flag”, a word he knows and pronounces in a standard way. It’s like he was testing us, to see if maybe he was right and we would eventually just accept his pronunciation (which we did).
“You guys” (idiom example)
Gideon uses this to get attention with a group, which makes sense. Only when I was alone with him, and he kept calling me over with “You guys” did I realize that he had overgeneralized its usage. “You guys!” No, still just me. I didn’t correct him. I wonder if this is just something you figure out. But when? And below the level of perception, or with a jolt, like the time I realized people had different meanings for “a couple”?
“He didn’t get none.” (grammar example)
This wasn’t the only double negative of the day. I doubt Gideon would hear this from the adults around him. From the kids? Is it something he just creates, from a mix of “He didn’t get any” and “He got none”? It certainly flies in the face of the theory that people only make these errors if they are translating from their first language.
In sum: Kids, as I experienced last weekend, make lots of errors and receive a mix of implicit correction, explicit correction, and no correction.
The one thing I would take as a language learning tip from kids, is to be fearless with your errors. Repeat new words and expressions and grammar formulas again and again. The benefit of being adult is that you can also ask for feedback.