First Language Acquisition from a Verbal and Nominal Morphological Perspective

Term Paper, 2014

11 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Language Acquisition Errors
2.1. General Errors
2.2. CHILDES Database: Nina
2.3. Brown Study

3. Study: Comparison of Childrens Language Acquisition in America
3.1. Observation of Michael and Erin
3.2. Differences and Correlations

4. Conclusion

First Language Acquisition from a Morphological Perspective

1. Introduction

Although the English language consists of only little verbal morphology nowadays, the development of morphological first language acquisition of growing children is critically discussed. Specialists argue whether one can say that there is a clear development which appears during the same stages of different children. This paper will shed light on morphological aspects, especially on verbal and nominal morphological developments. The examined approaches are of English-speaking children. However, the primarily involved morphological phenomenon is contemporary overand undermarking, as well as over regularizations (MacWinney et al. 1984: 529). To begin with, general errors in morphological language acquisition will be displayed, followed by a concrete example of the child Nina from the CHILDES Database of the Suppes corpus. In order of being more comparative, some examples of the Brown study will be given. In the second part, the results of the children acquiring English in my own observation study will be discussed and compared to the results given. All these examples and comparisons of the first language acquisition of English-speaking children will lead to questioning, if different children acquire language during the same period of time and if they pass through equal stages on their way to an „own“ and independent adult language.

2.Language AcquisitionErrors

2.1. General Morphological Errors in L1 Acquisition

Generally speaking, there are a number of errors that children have in common during the acquisition of their mother tongue. In his model, MacWhinney (1984: 532) believes that „children are seen as moving through a cycle which leads in successive approximations toward the adult grammar“. According to him, children either learn by simple memorization or rote of their first words, or they produce others by morpheme combination, and yet others by analogies, when there is no direct rule available. However, they prefer rote over combination and combination over analogy, so the three can be ordered serially (1984: 532). Nevertheless, MacWhinney (1984: 532) argues that at the same time there is the so called “competition system”, in which all three processes can operate in parallel.

As already mentioned, regarding one first error which often happens in first language acquisition, children universally tend to (over-) regularize (MacWhinney et al. 1984: 529). To give an example, children have a late acquisition of “shwa-insert” affixes. This means that the regular plural and past allomorphs /əz, əd/ are usually left out in early stages of acquisition of plural and past morphemes. As an example, children often use the word kiss for both singular and plural types of the noun (MacWhinney et al. 1984: 529). This explains why children who are still acquiring language would possibly see nothing wrong in saying “Mom gave me two kiss”. In addition, they generally avoid zero morphological marking on semantically marked categories (MacWhinney et al. 1984: 529). One can therefore generally say, that children avoid the / əz/ in word stems that already sound like plurals. In addition, the several studies propose that children have a “late acquisition of the syllabic form of the English past tense” (cf. MacWinney et al. 1984: 530).

Regarding the general grammar rules, there are regular and irregular past tense forms. The regular forms, however, end in –ed. The simple past is used for actions, events and states that were fully completed in the past (Ungerer et al. 2008: 78). Due to MacWinney, a second error which is often made in first language acquisition is the so called “acceptance of partial regularity” (1984: 530). This means, that children see a connection between stem final /t and d/’s and the past tense marker /əd/. They therefore often produce words such as hitted, feeled or felted (MacWinney et al. 1984: 530). However on the contrary to this rule, some irregular past forms are learnt unexpectedly early. For example, as Menn and MacWinney argue, although a child might fail in producing hitted, it could have already acquired the tendency to use caught instead of catched. Apparently, there is some kind of delay of the past tense marker /əd/ (cf. Menn, MacWinney, 1984: 530).

Regarding further effects, children appear to have an infrequency of inflectional back-formations during first language acquisition. As an example, children never produce /kɪ/ as the stem of kiss. Somehow they understand that the /s/ is not the plural marker (cf. Menn, MacWinney 1984: 531). In their acquisition of the language, the correct stem of kiss is being used. On the other hand, they therefore do extract pant from pants. In this case, they falsely observe the /s/ as a past tense marker and define pant as the stem. An explanation could be that it seems easily construed due to having a marker on semantic and syntactic grounds (cf. Menn, MacWinney, 1984: 531). From a grammatical explanation, pants is an example of a pair word. These kinds of nouns are always used in the plural due to referring to items that are made of two halves (cf. Ungerer et al. 2008: 13).

The plural form of most English nouns is produced by adding a plural /s/. There are some specialties in writing, but especially differences in pronunciation, depending on voiceless or voiced consonants as well as sibilants (cf. Ungerer et al. 2008: 14). One final phenomenon which needs to be discussed is the occasional affix repetition. According to MacWinney, after having acquired the shwa-insert affixes as for example the plural marker /əs/, children occasionally produce over-marked forms like duckses, footses or feetses (1984: 532). He argues that the process that checks affix expressions on the one hand probably also tries to block redundancy seems to fail at some point of language acquisition. A possible explanation for this failure could be that although the child has understood that there are existent apparently-marked stems (such as box) which are actually not marked, it nevertheless has not found out yet which ones those are (cf. Menn, MacWinney, 1984: 531).

Talking about irregular errors in language acquisition and production, as MacWinney argues, it is interesting to consider that children tend to accept special errors which are similar to their own ones in production. For example, at a certain age children do not accept the over-marking of forms like felled, on the contrary they do however accept the regularization of falled (1984:532). In this case, falled has probably been more similar to the own errors the child made. To conclude, all of the errors mentioned are basically generalizations of errors that many children produced in their first language acquisition. In the following, one particular child, Nina, will be examined on her production of language.


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First Language Acquisition from a Verbal and Nominal Morphological Perspective
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Department of English and Linguistics)
Linguistics: Morphology
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First Language Acquisition, Morphology, Verbal and Nominal Perspective
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Anonymous, 2014, First Language Acquisition from a Verbal and Nominal Morphological Perspective, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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