The acquisition of the future tense

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

29 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures

1. Introduction

2. Data

3. Results
3.1 General remarks on the data
3.2 The age of acquisition of the future tense
3.3 The development of the use of the future tense
3.4 Constructions
3.5 Subjects
3.6 Verbs
3.7 Errors in the use of the future tense

4. Conclusion

5. References

6. Appendix
6.1 Input of Adam’s mother
6.2 Input of Sarah’s mother
6.3 Adam’s data
6.4 Sarah’s data

List of Tables and Figures

Table 1 Data – total number of sentences containing will- or gonna- future

Table 2 Input and output of will- and gonna- future

Table 3 Means of constructions with gonna- future

Table 4 Constructions with will- future

Table 5 Subjects with gonna- future

Table 6 Subjects with will- future

Figure 1 Development of Adam’s use of gonna- future

Figure 2 Development of Sarah’s use of gonna- future

Figure 3 Development of Adam’s use of will- future

Figure 4 Development of Sarah’s use of will- future

Figure 5 Verbs in combination with gonna- future

Figure 6 Verbs in combination with will- future

1. Introduction

It is the goal of this paper to examine the acquisition of the future tense in children’s speech. After a two word utterance stage they develop more and more their speaking skills and start to talk about events and activities in the future, apart from saying things about the present. To give a detailed account of the acquisition of the future, this study includes several steps of examination. It will not only try to answer to the questions, when children first use future expressions and how their use develops in time. But it also includes an analysis of the occurrence of future tense in specific constructions, such as simple sentences, questions etc. It is also necessary to look at verbs as well as subjects which occur with expressions of future tense. A last part of the study is concerned with common errors children produce when speaking about the future.

There exist several ways to express the future in adult grammar. The most common forms, which are also the focus of this analysis, are the simple future expressed by will and the going to -future. Other possibilities of expressing the future, e.g. using simple present tense or a present progressive form of the verb, will be neglected in this paper, as they are too complex in their concepts for children. They mainly depend on adverbials of time to denote the future and therefore would require a different focus of analysis.

The simple future is formed with the modal auxiliary will, followed by the infinitive of a verb (e.g. Greenbaum 1991: 54), as in

(a) I will write the exam.

The will- future is used to convey two different concepts: first, it is used for expressing general predictions and assumptions of what is going to happen in the future and second, it marks spontaneous decisions, offers and promises. (cf. Fleischhack 2001: 70).

The second form of expressing future tense is the combination of the infinitive of a verb with a form of be going to, such as in

(b) I am going to work in the garden.

The going to -future is used to talk about personal intentions or programmes. Furthermore, it also indicates that something is probable and likely to happen in the future. (see e.g. Fleischhack 2001: 71)

In spoken language, a contracted form of going to, namely gonna, is possible and also very common. E.g. Mindt (1992: 33) refers to gonna as expressing “familiar style”. As for the example in (b), replacing going to with gonna constructs

(c) I’m gonna work in the garden.

As children’s language is most of all spoken language in a colloquial, familiar style, this analysis will focus on gonna instead of going to. For an easier handling I will use the terms “gonna- future” and “will- future” to refer to these two concepts throughout the text.

Children tend to speak of themselves, so I assume that gonna is used more often than will, as it expresses personal plans.

As there are no previous studies on the development of the future tense in children’s language, this is the first study to examine the acquisition of the future tense in children’s language. However, a study was conducted by Mindt (2001), who analysed the use of the future in English to develop a “didactic

grammar” (Mindt 2001: 1). His study intended to give an overview of different concepts, including morphology, syntax and semantics, of the future in the English language especially for second language learning. Some of his findings provide a more general overview of future expressions in English and I will refer to them whenever they are appropriate for the analysis of the future tense in children’s language acquisition.

2. Data

The data is from the CHILDES database. I looked at Adam and Sarah who were studied by Roger Brown between 1962 and 1966 (cf. Brown 1973). Both were recorded regularly every two weeks over a period of about three years. So, their data is quite extensive and useful in order to observe a development in their use of future expressions. For this study I used the full number of the

files, so Adam’s development is covered from the age of 2;3 until 4;10 and Sarah’s from age 2;3 up to 5;1.

The data was collected by doing a combo search with the help of the CLAN program, looking for the verbs gonna and will on the child tier, the latter in combination with will as auxiliary verb on the morpheme tier. For the input, which includes data of Sarah’s and Adam’s mothers, who mainly talked to them, the same was done.

To get a first overview of the data, table 1 summarizes the findings. There are a total of 922 sentences containing gonna- and 538 sentences containing will- future.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 1 Data – total number of sentences containing will- or gonna- future

These constitute a total of 1,460 utterances which include forms of either will- or gonna- future. Compared to the total number of utterances these two children produce, these are very low numbers. Adam’s files comprise a total of 46,498 utterances, so will- and gonna- future mark only 2.2 percent. Sarah produces a total number of 37,021 utterances, of which 1.15 percent contain expressions of gonna- or will- future. Although both children were investigated over the same time range, Sarah’s data contribute only with 29 percent to the overall findings. The differences between the raw numbers among the findings will be investigated later on.

In the further analysis not all of the 1,460 utterances could be included as some turned out to be not useful for certain steps of analysis. Sentences which did not include an infinitive verb form, e.g. such phrases that mark only an answer, were not counted for the analysis of verbs in combination with future expressions. Also, such phrases in which the subject could not be clearly identified where not included in the analysis of subjects. These instances in which the children repeated themselves within one and the same phrase were only counted as one occurrence of either will or gonna. So, depending on the part of analysis slightly fewer sentences were analyzed.

3. Results

After having given the grammatical background and an overview of the data, it is now the aim to interpret the findings. The following analysis focuses on several aspects. First, the exact age of acquisition of the future tense and the development of the use of expressions will be determined. Then I will turn to the analysis of external and internal syntactic features (these terms are used

e.g. by Diessel 2004: 131). External features refer to the types of constructions in which future tense occurs. The analysis of internal features looks at subjects and verbs which are frequent with will- and gonna- future. The last part of this analysis is concerned with errors children produce in expressing future tense.

3.1 General remarks on the data

Before looking at the acquisition of the future tense, I will first have a look at some general observations.

As can be seen from table 1, Adam uses much more sentences expressing future than Sarah. Although both were observed for the same time range and age, Adam’s data makes up around 71 percent whereas Sarah’s data contributes with 29 percent to the overall findings. Also, in contrast to Adam, who produces twice as much gonna- future as will- future, Sarah uses both expressions almost equally. Table 1 also gives proof to the assumption that gonna is used more often than will. Of all the findings, gonna- future makes up 63 percent in contrast to will- future with 37 percent.

A look at the input data might give an explanation for the differences in the proportions of the children’s sentences.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 2 Input and output of will- and gonna- future

The results are quite surprising. Except for the input on Sarah for gonna, the number of the input is always lower than the one for the output. Adam’s

mother uses 137 expressions including the auxiliary will, and only six times gonna. On the other hand, Sarah’s mother uses 93 times will and 452 times gonna. The biggest discrepancy lies in Adam’s use of gonna and the input he receives from his mother. He produces 100 times more gonna- sentences than his mother. Additionally, he already uses gonna- utterances before his mother uses them when talking to him (starting only from age 3;7), see the data in the appendix. This infers that he must have received output outside the recording sessions; that he is already able to produce such constructions himself and is not only imitating them.

3.2 The age of acquisition of the future tense

First of all, the question of when do children acquire the future tense will be answered.

Concerning the acquisition of the gonna- future there is some similarity between the two children. Both children produce their first sentences containing gonna at the age of 2;7. In both cases, there is a gap of about three months between their first utterances and the next productions. However, they differ in the quality of their first productions. Whereas Adam’s first phrase resembles a construction in form of a simple sentence formula in the type of action-object or agent-action (see e.g. Clark 2003: 171), Sarah produces a correct simple sentence:

(1) no gonna fall [Adam 2;7]
(2) I'm gonna pull my back. [Sarah 2;7].

This difference is probably due to the different input. Whereas Adam received no input of gonna up to this point in the recordings, Sarah’s mother already uses gonna frequently in asking questions and talking to her daughter. Nevertheless, Sarah also does not produce another sentence containing gonna- future until the age of 3;0.

In contrast to the gonna- future, the acquisition of the will- future is quite different. Adam utters the will future quite early, already at the age of 2;4. His first sentence is

Mommy will have to take you down. [Adam 2;4]

Here, he receives input constantly from his mother. From the first recordings on she utters will. Sarah needs much longer to produce her first sentence containing the will- future. Only at the age of 3;0 she utters the first expression using will- future:

down will fall. [Sarah 3;0]

Her mother only uses will randomly in the beginning. Similar to Adam’s first gonna- utterance, Sarah’s first will- phrase represents more a simple sentence formula including a future aspect, namely will.

As the same accounts for Adam’s acquisition of gonna, I assume that there is a correlation between the little input and the quality of the output the children produce. As both receive little or no input up to the point of time they utter their first gonna- or will- expression, their first utterances resemble rather constructions which look like sentence formulas in the two-word stage than proper sentences.

In how far this relates to the development of their use of gonna- and will-

future will be determined in the next step.

3.3 The development of the use of the future tense

The development of the gonna- future is quite similar between Adam and Sarah. Figures 1 and 2 give an overview of the development of the use of gonna- future of Adam and Sarah. The graphs show the numbers of sentences containing gonna at the respective age. In both cases, there is a gap between the age of 2;7 and 3;0, as both children did not produce any gonna- expressions in these months.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1 Development of Adam’s use of gonna- future

Although his first utterance containing gonna resembles more a two-word utterance (as mentioned above), his next utterances are proper phrases.

it's gonna break. [Adam 3;0]

The graph shows that Adam, after a pause of three months, uses gonna quite constantly up to the age of 4;1. As the examination of the input showed, he did not receive any gonna input during the recording sessions up to the age of 3;7, his use of gonna-expressions is limited in its frequency. Starting at around 4;1 his use of gonna increases steadily. It develops to a higher level, on which it remains until the end of the recordings.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2 Development of Sarah’s use of gonna- future

Apart from the first few months, Sarah’s development differs from Adam’s.

A first peak is reached at the age of 3;2. Her use increases again at the age of

3;10 where it seems to have reached a higher level. However, in the last few months of the recordings the number of gonna-constructions in her speech decreases again.

However, both children, after the first months, develop towards a higher frequency.

After examining the development of the gonna -future, I will continue with the development of the will -future. Again, figures 3 and 4 show the graphs of the numbers of will -utterances at the respective age of the child.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 3 Development of Adam’s use of will- future

Adam’s use of will starts quite early at the age of 2;4. He uses will constantly up to the age of 3;2, when his use increases rapidly. This indicates that his first utterances, supported by a constant input by his mother from the first recordings on, must be imitations of the input phrases, before a phase of massive self-production follows. This is also due to the fact that the amount of input is lower than the utterances Adam produces (see again table 2).


Excerpt out of 29 pages


The acquisition of the future tense
College  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Syntactic Development
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Syntactic, Development, children, language learning, acquisition, tense, future
Quote paper
M.A. Sandra Dorschner (Author), 2006, The acquisition of the future tense, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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