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


I’ll admit, I struggle daily with impatience and frustration when taking care of my son Ryden. He has a BIG personality, and the energy of a thermonuclear bomb. Of course it’s rewarding in countless ways as well – and when comical or interesting language drops from his mouth, I collect each word like it’s a ruby or sapphire, and feel immensely rich.

As a follow-up to part I, this second batch of categorized kid talk presents some silliness (hopefully a part of every preschooler’s day), code-switching between English and French, and persistent errors made on multiple linguistic levels.

(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”.)


Being silly

Little kids love being silly, and love watching others (especially “serious” adults) act silly – and much of this silliness is enacted via language. Inevitably, a large part of the humor here is based on bodily excretions, a.k.a. “potty talk”. In the U.S., potty training typically happens between the ages of two to three, so toddlers and preschoolers are becoming more aware of their bodies, how they get rid of waste, etc.

I’ve also lumped in here a couple examples where goofiness wasn’t Ryden’s intention, since they struck me as funny (see the first two below, outliers as well because non-potty-talk).

Language samples

  • {2;11} He whispered very quietly to himself while I was singing him twinkle twinkle in the dark at bedtime: “No ghosts. No crabs. No ghosts.”
  • {3;0} “I have boogerinos (= boogers)”
  • {3;0} “Daddy, come fayt (= fart) with me”
  • {3;1} “Mutts in the butts, mutts in the butts” (saying in sing-songy voice lately)
  • {3;1}
    • R: “You want some poopoo packages? You want some doity (= dirty) packages?” (delivering lego ‘packages’ to me with lego ‘truck’)
    • Me: “No! I want clean packages.”
    • R: “No, doity packages. There’s gonna be poopoo… and flies… and dust… and doity stuff”
  • {3;3} “It’s a snakey snakey” (Just pooped, talking about it)
  • {3;4} “Knock it off, farting lava everywhere!” (to Asher)


Code-switching (English – French)

Code-switching is when a speaker switches between two or more languages within a single conversation, and it’s quite common among bilingual and multilingual people. It can occur between whole sentences, smaller phrases, or even between individual words and morphemes. (You can read more about the interesting reasons for and types of code-switching on Wikipedia.)

French is my second language. I started learning at age 12 and have never stopped. I’m not bilingual, but I do speak it rather fluently. I’ve been speaking French to Ryden a little each day since he was born (ranging from 0-30% of my daily speech to him). We also read books together in French, and he occasionally watches French TV.

Although he seems to understand a good deal, Ryden doesn’t say much unprompted en français (the exposure to this second language is simply not enough, since neither his father nor anyone else around him speaks it). However, he does sometimes inject single French words into English sentences, or produce short French phrases on his own. As you’ll see below, the single French words are almost always nouns. The nouns in a young child’s vocabulary are often more tangible than verbs, adjectives, or function words like articles and conjunctions, and they comprise a large chunk of babies’ first words in their native languages, so it makes sense to me that these would be the most approachable part of speech in a second language as well.

One aspect I haven’t captured in the text samples is phonology – Ryden’s pronunciation in French sounds near-native, which is pretty cool.

Language samples

  • {2;11} “Va-t-en, mouche, fly, don’t eat my carrots!”
    • Translation: Va-t’en, mouche = Go away, fly
  • {3;1} “It’s a red porte” (We were walking outside, he saw the red door of a house)
    • Translation: (la) porte = (the) door
  • {3;1} “It’s a hibou” (looking at owl on matching card game card)
    • Translation: (un) hibou = (an) owl
  • {3;1} At breakfast, R puts his little glass of milk right next to my big glass of water, says: “Look, it’s milk and water!” (Pauses) “Du lait et de l’eau!
    • Translation: Du lait et de l’eau = Milk and water


Phonetic / lexical / morphological / semantic errors

This category contains examples of some persistent language errors Ryden has made – he has said all of the below (except for the “sleep about” example) multiple times. For several, he’s repeated the incorrect forms even after being directly exposed to the correct ones (by me or Asher).[1]

Being a linguist with a young child is peculiar in that, probably in stark contrast to many non-linguist parents (from an American middle-class demographic at least), I relish my little one’s mistakes, never rush to correct them, and secretly hope he won’t outgrow them too quickly. I delight in his language mishaps since #1, I find them adorable; #2, I’m entirely confident that he’ll eventually learn the correct forms; and #3, errors provide some of the most helpful insights into the nature of how our brains acquire and process language.

I’ve sub-grouped the examples below, with short explanations of each subcategory.

Language samples

PHONETIC / LEXICAL – These are issues with both the phonemes (sound units) and lexical units (words).

  • {3;0} “It’s smooky” (=’spooky’), talking about Halloween decorations on our walk
  • {3;1} “nem-nems” (=’M&Ms’)
  • {3;1} “He punked (= ‘bumped’) his head” (uses ‘punked’ consistently for ‘bumped’, even after us reiterating the correct form)
  • {3;5} R had been complaining that his tummy hurt all morning, that he had to vomit, and he didn’t want to eat his breakfast (super unusual). “I don’t want to eat, that makes me a bellycake (= ‘bellyache’).”
  • {3;6} “No, I don’t like walmonds (= ‘almonds’ + ‘walnuts’)  (I was offering him both)

(Walmonds is an amazing word blend. See post here on types of word formation, including blending.)


MORPHOLOGICAL – The sample below shows confusion over regular and irregular noun plurals.

  • {3;5}
    • R: “Look, there’s gooses!”
    • Me: “Oh, there’s geese over there?”
    • R: “Yeah, there’s geeses

(This is a perfectly classic example of overregularization – see post here as it relates to past tense verbs. In the gooses case, Ryden is overgeneralizing the regular plural noun suffix -s to an irregular plural noun, geese.)


SEMANTIC – In the below, an entirely different word with a related meaning is swapped in for the expected form.

  • {3;1} “Wha’d you sleep about?” (Ryden asked Asher in morning, Asher confirmed he meant “what’d you dream about”)

(I love this one, because it’s a mess-up in the semantic similarity space. Sleep and dream are related concepts, where one event (sleeping) encapsulates the other event (dreaming)…and where the prerequisite for prototypical dreaming is that one is sleeping. Semantically related words supposedly cause similar neural activation patterns, so these types of mistakes make perfect sense.)


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


Part III of this series will feature language snippets showcasing the start of verbal pretend-play, a budding temporal understanding, and a couple of other categories. So check back next month (the smookiest time of the year)!



[1] This supports the argument made by cognitive psycholinguist Steven Pinker (and many others) that children do not learn their native languages based on explicit parental feedback. His oft-cited example is from another psycholinguist Martin Braine, who “once tried for several weeks to stamp out one of his daughter’s grammatical errors. Here is the result:

Child: Want other one spoon, Daddy.

Father: You mean, you want THE OTHER SPOON.

Child: Yes, I want other one spoon, please, Daddy.

Father: Can you say “the other spoon”?

Child: Other … one … spoon.

Father: Say … “other.”

Child: Other.

Father: “Spoon.”

Child: Spoon.

Father: “Other … Spoon.”

Child: Other … spoon. Now give me other one spoon?”

(From p.281 in The Language Instinct.)


* Photo attribution: The Owl King’s Bride

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