Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Budding English Speaker

English is a tough language to learn. What with all the homonyms, homophones, idioms, and picayune grammatical rules, it's a wonder anyone not born into an English-speaking land can manage to speak it, let alone write it, with any fluency.

So when I edit reports written by people for whom English is not the primary language, I tend to resist the urge to roll my eyes at twisted syntax or incomprehensible sentences. Instead I stand back and admire an intellectual feat of which I am incapable. The most complex sentence I can construct in German, the only language I've studied, is about four words long.

Sean came to the language party a little late---he didn't begin speaking more than one or two words until around Christmas of last year. (Hah! Fooled you! Here you thought I was about to natter on endlessly about something other than my children.) Since then his vocabulary and comprehension have expanded almost exponentially.

As with all toddlers, there is no end to the cuteness inherent in Sean's malapropisms and mispronunciations. From "mawnlower" for "lawnmower", "hecilopter" for "helicopter", "innasaycond" for "intersection", inserting a "d" in various words ("we have-ta be quie-det"), and "I spy with my lil-lel leye", it's all I can do not to swoop down and hug him each time he speaks.

I find it amazing that children apply grammatical rules even without having heard a specific precedence for them*. To them, it's obvious that if the past tense of many words is formed by adding "ed", then that must be the case for all words. Sean sometimes says things like, "I throwed the ball."

Even more problematic for him are pronouns. "What him doing?" is a big question around our house. How confusing it must be to learn a language that doesn't even pretend to be consistent: on the masculine end, "him" is the noun and "his" is the adjective, but the feminine equivalents are the same word: "her".

So when Sean wrangles with English grammar, I have to silence the editor in me. Instead of correcting him, which I think would only make him feel self-conscious and embarrassed, I repeat back what he said, inserting the correct words: "Yes, you threw the ball really far!" "What is he doing? He is mowing the lawn." It doesn't seem to have made too much of a difference yet, but I'm hopeful.

*One of these days, I'm really going to buckle down and finish Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct, which I started about 7 years ago.