Language Change During Language Acquisition
Eve V. Clark
Department of Linguistics
A perennial puzzle in language acquisition is why children's language develops. Very young children appear to communicate successfully, whether relying on gestures, single words, or both at once. Yet they invariably move on within their first three or four years from such rudimentary utterances as ball when they want a ball, say, to more complex and adultlike utterances such as I want to play with that ball. How do such changes take place? What mechanism would allow for the changes in children's utterances from age 1 to age 4? In this chapter, I will propose a partial answer to the how of change in children's emerging language.
During the acquisition of a language, children are learning both to understand and to produce the language spoken around them. These two activities, comprehension and production, so well coordinated in the adult, are nonetheless distinct. They do not develop at the same rate, nor are they necessarily coordinated during development. Numerous studies have noted discrepancies between children's comprehension and their production, for example, in vocabulary (e.g., Goldin-Meadow, Seligman, & Gelman, 1976; Rescorla, 1980), in noun and verb inflections (e.g., Fraser, Bellugi, & Brown, 1963; Keeney & Wolfe, 1972), in derivational affixes (e.g., Clark & Hecht, 1982), and in question forms (e.g., Johnson, 1981), to cite just a few. In many of these studies, comprehension appears to precede production, but in some, production appears to precede comprehension. Such data lend support to the view that coordination between comprehension and production is itself one outcome of the acquisition process.