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


Following part I and part II, this will be the last in my three-part series. I had intended to finish the post in October, but life was consumed by a big move from West Coast to East, so writing had to pause for a while.

For our final exploration of a preschooler’s mind via language, I discuss pretend play, verb errors, a growing self-awareness, and conceptual categories. If my descriptions get a bit dry and technical, may the natural whimsy of the language samples (like raisins in an overbaked fruitcake) lend some sweetness to the whole.

(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.”)


Verbal pretend play

Around the age of two and a half (maybe earlier), my son Ryden began using speech in pretend play – verbally bringing imagined objects, characters, interactions, and scenarios into his little world. Often he incorporated Legos or toy cars into his scenes. But sometimes this pretending didn’t even involve physical props; it was very low-key. He would just be talking to himself while doing something unrelated, alternating speech between two fictional characters.

Pretend play in general is a crucial part of early childhood development, helping to cultivate social, emotional, and linguistic skills. When children adopt other roles, they practice seeing from other perspectives, which fosters empathic and cooperative behaviors. Copying words they’ve heard others say solidifies their growing vocabulary.

Language samples

  • {2;11} (Talking to himself while he’s eating last bite of PB&J bagel) “I’m gonna eat you up! No, no, don’t eat me up!”
  • {3;0} “Mommy said no more getting treats. No, I want treats. No, I’m angry. No more getting treats.” (Playing by himself with puzzle pieces)
  • {3;2} “I’m going to throw a spiderweb over you! I’m a superhero! I’m going to throw a web over you.” (Then he was making large web-throwing gestures and noises and mischievous faces. Must have gotten something like this from YouTube, superheroes don’t really come up in our talk at home.)


Verb errors: Creating ‘novel causative verbs’

Echoing the sentiments I expressed here, the language in this category is nerdily marvelous to me. That’s because these snippets are real-live examples, from my real-live progeny, of a phenomenon researched at length by psycholinguist Melissa Bowerman – whose research had captivated me in grad school.

Bowerman kept detailed journals of her two children’s linguistic development when they were between the ages of 1 and 5. In her research[1], Bowerman analyzed errors that she called children’s “novel causative verbs”:

“Children learning English begin to create novel causative verbs between the ages of about 2 and 3. They do this by using a predicate that is normally noncausative (usually an intransitive verb or adjective, but sometimes also a transitive verb or a locative particle) to mean roughly ‘cause the state of affairs normally referred to by this word to come about’.”[2]

I realize that quote is probably rather opaque. Let me give a few examples from the paper, and then unpack the terminology. Examples:

  • Go me to the bathroom before you go to bed.” (go should be take)
  • “I’m gonna just fall this on her.” (fall should be drop)
  • “Don’t giggle me” (giggle should be tickle)

The bolded words above are intransitive verbs that the child has used in a transitive, causative way. If you can stay awake for it, a quick grammar refresher will help clarify. (An asterisk (*) denotes ungrammatical words or sentences.)

  • A predicate is the word/words in a sentence that describes what the subject is or does. In English, predicates can be verbs alone, or longer clauses (verbs plus other parts of speech like nouns, adjectives, and phrases).
    • Examples: The little dog laughed. The dish ran away with the spoon. I am the King of France.
  • A transitive verb requires a direct object to express a complete idea.
    • Examples: He likes pea soup. *He likes.
  • An intransitive verb cannot take a direct object.
    • Examples: The rabbit hopped. *The rabbit hopped the frog.
  • Some verbs can be used both transitively and intransitively.
    • Examples: I broke my favorite mug. My favorite mug broke.
  • A causative verb (or predicate) indicates that the subject caused or helped to make a situation come about.
    • Examples: Tom took his dog to the park. My parents made me eat broccoli.

So Bowerman is describing a type of error where the child twists a noncausative verb/predicate like ‘to fall’, into a causative meaning like ‘to cause to fall’ (or ‘to drop’ – since dropping an object usually causes it to fall). Ryden’s mistakes conform beautifully to this pattern.

Language samples

  • {2;11} – {3;0}
    • “I feel you better” (early morning, I’m lying on couch, he’s getting his new toy medicine kit)
      • Correct form: I make you feel better
    • “No, I don’t want the sticker! Go it away!”
      • Correct form: Move/Take/Put it away or Make it go away
    • “Milk feel me better”
      • Correct form: Milk makes me feel better
  • {3;1} “I drank my milk. Milk gonna grow me big and strong?”
    • Correct form: Milk gonna make me grow big and strong
  • {3;4} “Can you flat this down please?”
    • Correct form: Can you flatten this down or Can you make this flat


Temporal understanding and awareness of self

This broad grouping encompasses Ryden’s growing awareness of both the passage of time and himself as an autonomous being in time, who grows and changes, and is separate from other people.

The basics of self-awareness (realizing that you are distinct from others) develop early – between 15 and 24 months. Researchers commonly use what’s called the rouge test (identifying oneself in a mirror) to determine whether a young child has started to become self-aware. Some also claim that pronominal language like “I, me, mine” and “empathic acts” are further evidence.

Cognitive psychologist Philippe Rochat detailed five levels of expanding self-awareness, from birth to ages 4-5. The rouge test and self-referential language I mentioned belong to his “Level 3: Identification.” After that comes “Level 4: Permanence”: “This stage occurs after infancy when children are aware that their sense of self continues to exist across both time and space.”[3] The language from Ryden below illustrates this type of awareness.

Language samples

  • {2;11} “I’m not a baby anymore.” (I was hugging him in the morning, saying “you’re my baby”)
  • {3;0} “Oh, I can’t reach the light. I’m not a big grown yet.” (reaching for porch light)
  • {3;1} (In bed in dark, I was singing to him)
    • R: “You’re gonna go to bed too?”
    • Me: “Yeah, soon”
    • R: “What you’re gonna do? (Pause) “What daddy gonna do?”
      • (This was his first time really indicating that he was thinking about what would happen with us after he was asleep. He’s developing consciousness of other people doing things outside of his immediate here & now, unrelated to him…)

What’s next? “Once a child has achieved self-awareness, the child is moving toward understanding social emotions such as guilt, shame or embarrassment, and pride, as well as sympathy and empathy. These will require an understanding of the mental state of others which is acquired around age 3 to 5 […]”[4]

I must therefore remember that the social-emotional segments of my son’s brain are still ripening. He’s 4 now, and it’s a full-time job encouraging the growth of sympathetic tendrils from his often impulsive, self-centered nature.


Conceptual categories

The examples here are particularly fun because they reveal so explicitly Ryden’s acquisition of conceptual category structure.

Human minds love to categorize. Fields like cognitive linguistics and psychology propose abstract mental constructs called conceptual (or cognitive) categories to describe how we organize and talk about concrete and abstract entities. For example, we see an orange and understand that to be a specific instantiation of the broader category fruit. Categories group similar items together.

Conceptual categories are divided into three levels (again with the levels!): superordinate, basic, and subordinate.[5]

  • Superordinate level categories are the most general, and have few items.
  • Basic level categories are “the most culturally salient,” “the most cognitively efficient,”[6] and the most detailed in our minds. They contain more items than the levels above and below.
  • Subordinate level categories are the most specific, and also have few items.


Humans seem to prefer the basic level when labeling and discussing things in the world. We learn basic level categories more easily, and identify objects belonging to these categories more quickly. Roger Brown, a psychologist and child language researcher, observed that “children use these categories first in language learning, and superordinates are especially difficult for children to fully acquire.”[7]

After reading the samples here, I’d love to know if your interpretations align with mine below.

Language samples

  • {3;5} “I hear crows! Crows are a kind of boid (= ‘bird’)” (said on walk / bike ride)
  • {3;5} “Biscuit is a kind of bread. That look similar to the other ones. Right? Right mommy?”
  • {3;6}
    • R: “A zombie”
    • Me: “A zombie?”
    • R: “That’s a kind of monstoir (= ‘monster’)”

The three examples illustrate Ryden’s familiarity with what I would consider to be basic level categories (bird, bread, monster). At the time of these utterances, he’s figuring out how more specific, i.e. subordinate level, categories (crow, biscuit, zombie) fit into their basic level counterparts. And he’s using very explicit language to do it – the expression “<X> [be] a kind of <Y>” – which he’d seemingly just learned and was rearing to put to use in testing his cognitive category hypotheses. 😊


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


That’s it for this series. I hope the posts were an appropriate mix of informative and amusing! I’ll end with a more personal, longer-term hope as well…which is that my son won’t resent me too much when he’s older for so publicly and minutely analyzing his little kid speech.



[1] The most relevant papers here are Learning the structure of causative verbs and Evaluating…Causative Verbs.

[2] Page 11 in Evaluating…Causative Verbs

[3] Development-of-self-2

[4] Development-of-self-2

[5] Levels_of_categorization

[6] Page 1 in Basic-level_categories_A_review

[7] Categories-and-concepts


* Photo attribution: Reaching

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