The cognitive linguistic world of a 3-year-old (part I)


Ever wondered what goes through the mind of a 3-year-old? To adapt that old eyes are the windows to the soul cliché – for me, language is the window to those marvelous little brains.

As mentioned in this post, I have been keeping a journal of my son Ryden’s language development and environment since he was preverbal, starting about 4 months after he was born. Recently, I wanted to choose some fun entries to share on the blog. Of course the list became longer than I’d intended. And of course, although I’d planned to present the examples unadorned, in simple chronological order… as soon as they lay before me in all their linguistic splendor, patterns starting popping out. My penchant for categorization took over, and I began binning the examples into conceptually-themed buckets.

I’ll be presenting these categories and language samples across three posts. In this first, we see a preschooler learning about his social world, the natural world, the world of language, and navigating the complex space (pun intended) of English prepositions.

(Age in the language samples is represented by the formatting convention, used in developmental psychology, of years;months – e.g. 2;11 means “2 years and 11 months”.)


Social / Emotional / Pragmatic / Interactional understanding

This category contains examples of Ryden’s development in navigating social interactions, his emotions, and his pragmatic (contextual) understanding of conversation.

A little more specifically, he’s learning about politeness, power dynamics, manipulation through dishonesty or threats, and other social conventions/expectations. He’s interpreting idioms literally (the “dried cranberry” example). And he’s starting to think about the knowledge, or lack of knowledge, that other people may have (the “shapes” example).

Language samples

  • {3;0} “The pee makes me good?” (after successful peeing on the potty)
  • {3;0} “Good job, mommy!” (after I’d found a puzzle piece he’d been looking for)
  • {3;1} (The last few days he’s started intentionally lying / trying to deceive us… no idea it would start so early!)
    • R: (To Asher [his dad]) “Mommy said I can watch colors trucks[1]
    • A: “Are you sure mommy said that? I’m gonna go ask her”
    • R: “No, you can’t ask hoir (= her). Imma go ask hoir.” (Leaves Asher’s office, but doesn’t come to me, goes back in his office)
    • R: “I asked hoir, I can watch colors trucks”
  • {3;1} (A dried cranberry fell to ground in school parking lot after we got out of car)
    • Me: “That’s dirty now, Ryden, don’t even think about it”
    • R: “I’m thinking about it” (while staring intently at cranberry but not moving to pick it up)
  • {3;4} “If you talk to me, then I’m gonna yell. So don’t talk to me!”
  • {3;4} “Thank you for dinnoir (= dinner), daddy. Thank you for cooking, daddy. Thank you for getting food at the store.” (At the end of dinner)
  • {3;5} (To Asher, who was carrying him from swim class) “You need to go to the store and borrow a toy to keep me happy”
  • {3;6} (Asher was cutting up pieces of parchment paper to freeze the black bean burgers.)
    • R: “Are you cutting squares?”
    • A: “Yes”
    • R: “I wanna see”
    • (A showed him one of the pieces of parchment)
    • R: “That’s not a square, that’s a rectangle. You don’t know your shapes?”


Prepositional mistakes

English prepositions are notoriously tricky for non-native English speakers to learn. Unsurprisingly, they’re also tricky for very young speakers acquiring English as their native language.

A preposition can be generally defined as a word used before a noun/pronoun/noun phrase to relate that object grammatically or semantically to another part of the sentence. These relationships are usually spatial or temporal (e.g. indicating direction, location, or time), or metaphorical extensions of these. Prepositions are only one option among several for instantiating spatial and temporal relations – other languages (like Turkish and Japanese) use postpositions, and polysynthetic languages (like Mohawk and Yupik) use bound morphemes.

Prepositions form part of the “functional” or “closed class” component of language – like pronouns and conjunctions, they are grammatical building blocks, changing far less frequently than “open class” parts of speech like nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

The most common English prepositions are at, by, for, from, in, of, on, to, and with.

If I had to guess why prepositions prove so challenging to young English speakers, I’d posit at least the following reasons:

  1. Polysemy. Each preposition has many different meanings. Often a basic spatial meaning gets extended to non-spatial senses via metaphor or other processes.
  2. The complexity of our cognitive representations of space and time. This merits its own long blog post.
  3. Phonetic de-stressing of preposition words. It’s easy for young learners to miss prepositions in caregivers’ speech because these tiny words are phonetically unstressed (said more quickly, less enunciated, etc.)

Language samples

  • {3;1} “It’s scawed fwom (= from) you. It’s scawed fwom me.” (Talking about a blueberry he found hidden in his cereal)
    • Note: from should be of
  • {3;2} “Wrap me up to a baby package and send me to daddy” (in towel right after bath, as per our custom)
    • Note: to should be in
  • {3;3} “I was hiding for you. I was hiding from you. I was hiding for you.” (Seems like he was trying to figure out which preposition was right)
    • Note: for should be from
  • {3;5} “Can you show that picture for daddy?”
    • Note: for should be to


Metalinguistic references

Metalinguistic references demonstrate Ryden’s growing awareness of language as a phenomenon in its own right. He explicitly mentions the word word(s) and uses verbs dealing with speech or writing (say, spell). He’s started to understand that there are languages besides English (e.g. French, his second language). And he’s learned the letters of the alphabet, which he sees recruited to spell words in books and other written materials. I love this category for its loopy-ness – we use language to communicate about and understand language itself. 

Language samples

  • {2;10} “I don’t… I don’t know the woid (= word).” (First metalinguistic reference I’ve heard)
  • {2;11} “What’s that woid? What’s that woid?” (Started asking this and pointing to various things around his room after I’d said something in French, he wanted the French word for each thing)
  • {2;11} “No don’t say dat. Don’t say… anysing (= anything) to me.” (Talking to me in the car, don’t remember what I said to him)
  • {2;11} “What does that spell?” (Pointing at ‘BevMo’ store sign)
  • {3;3} “’Fucking god’ is a bad woid?” (Kept asking this at dinner… he totally knew he’d found a loophole in not being able to say it, by saying it from within that question… !)
    • (I’d mistakenly sworn this once or twice in front of him a few weeks earlier, and of course he’d copied me. I’d explained, “don’t say that, they’re bad words. Mommy shouldn’t have said them either”.)
  • {3;3} Asher said Ryden knew all the letters in “mosquito” (in the book they were reading) except the ‘q’!


Understanding of the natural world

It is thrilling to watch a young child’s understanding of their world expand each day. Some concepts are very concrete and tangible – things like dirt, cold or hot temperatures, shape, and light or dark can be felt, touched, seen directly. Other concepts are more abstract – times of the day (morning/evening), microscopic things like germs, macroscopic things like planets moving in space. Regardless, kids soak it all up.

Right around his third birthday, Ryden became very interested in the solar system (am I right to claim that most little boys, at least in American culture, go through a space phase?!). Books and videos have contributed substantially to his conceptualizations of the (obviously pretty abstract) astronomical world. I imagine if he were not being raised in a literate and media-soaked society, his knowledge around this topic would be quite different.

Language samples

  • {2;11} “Morning is on the other side of the street.” (Looking out living room windows in the morning, he was talking about seeing the sun shining there)
  • {3;3} Can list all 8 planets, without even looking at pictures of them. Rattles them off in order of distance from the sun.
  • {3;3} “There’s joims (= germs) everywhere outside. But we can’t see them, cuz… They’re very very small. They go… HEY HO in the teeth”
  • {3;3} (On our walk, it’s dark and Ryden’s looking up at sky.) “There’s the moon. It’s a crescent moon. The rest is there but we can’t see it. The sun’s shining on part of it.”
    • (We’ve been reading and talking a lot lately about the moon phases etc. because he’s super into it. Even so, this very accurate observation / retelling of what he’d learned surprised me!)
  • {3;4} (On our afternoon walk, he was looking around.) “The oithe (= earth) is the only one! The only one that has Wyden (= Ryden), and mommy, and daddy, and houses, and cars, and trees. Not Jupitoir (= Jupiter).”


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Alright, I’m sure that’s quite enough to chew on for now! In parts two and three, you’ll see some English-French code-switching, cute phonetic/morphological/lexical errors, and the beginnings of verbal pretend-play.


[1] “Colors trucks” is what he calls YouTube on the iPad, since the videos he loves to watch most are of colorful vehicles, toy cars driving into colored slime, etc. YouTube is a weird place.

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