Linguistic understanding in children

It is astounding how early a comprehension of the mechanisms of language sets in, and how sophisticated it is

I have always been interested in language development. In my university studies I specialized in linguistic philosophy—where you attempt to define and solve age-old philosophical problems by looking at the linguistic structure of the questions posed. I also studied ethology (animal behaviour and communication), and language development in human infants and children, following the work of Jean Piaget on this subject. I naturally used my two sons as subjects for my studies, and am now doing the same, albeit it informally, with my two grandsons. That is what I will write about today.

Enders, the older grandson, has remarkable linguistic skills: he started speaking at a very early age, developed a large vocabulary of words, and constructed sentences well beyond his years. It was quite normal for people to ask: “Wait a minute, how old is he?” when he said something precocious. He was well ahead of the other kids in his day-care group. And he was generally very smart.

On the other hand his younger brother, Hennes, was the cutest little child you have ever seen. So the feeling was we have a super-smart one and a super-charmer. What more could you want?

Then one day, when he was just a year old, Hennes discovered language. I have a video of him saying one of his very first words:

Hennes has discovered that he can say the word “Uhr”(pronounced oo-eh, rhymes with “sure”). It’s German for clock, and he keeps pointing towards a clock on the wall behind him. Watch his excitement and delight at being able to name something meaningfully. I can talk!!

After this start Hennes made rapid progress — and soon rivalled his brother, who is a year and a half older. In fact, he took great pleasure in constructing ever more complex sentences. There is a famous incident that took place when he was four. We were visiting the family at their home, and when I entered Hennes looked at me, thought for a while, and then said: “I seem to detect that you have been to the hairdressers!” (in German: “Ich meine zu erkennen, dass du beim Frisör gewesen bist”). Everyone at the table froze: did the toddler really say that?? Yes he did. He had uttered a carefully planned and beautifully articulated sentence.

And that continued. Hennes speaks carefully, plans his remarks, pronounces everything flawlessly. Clearly he loves language. And for this reason he is a perfect subject for study.

Some years ago I tried the following experiment. I started telling him a story: “There was this man, on a cruise ship, who was carelessly leaning over the railing. Suddenly he slipped and fell into the sea, and drowned. Two crew members, who were great swimmers, jumped in and pulled him back onto the boat, where they gave him first aid and oxygen. And after ten minutes he was able to get up and walk around…”

How do you think the four-year-old reacted to the story? “But ‘drowned’ means he died, doesn’t it?” There are many words in German that imply finality, which Hennes and his brother Enders understand perfectly.

Image for post
Image for post

Today they are seven and eight years old, and my (periodic) tests are getting more complex. Last week I said to Hennes: “I promise the next time we are out, I will buy you an ice-cream. But maybe I won’t. I am definitely not under an obligation to do so.”

He was uncomfortable about this, but could not tell me why. I explained: you are not wondering if you will get an ice-cream or not, or whether I will break my promise. You are thinking about the word “promise.” Doesn’t it mean, precisely, that I am undertaking an obligation, which I cannot simply deny in the next sentence?

Hennes understood that perfectly. I tested it with another example. An hour later I said: “There was a squirrel in that tree, but maybe it was just a dry twig blowing in the wind.” With a little prompting he was able to tell me what was wrong with my statement: “There was a squirrel” implies that I know it was a squirrel, otherwise I would have to say “I thought there was a squirrel…” I tried other examples: “The ball is in that basket, but maybe it could be in the drawer” doesn’t work, because “is in the basket” implies I believe it is there. Hennes calls it a “paradox”, but I must explain the linguistic background more precisely the next time. We need to discuss contradictions and oxymorons. Hennes is looking forward to it.

Aside: if you think I am taking this a bit too far, let me give you an example of what a conversation, two years ago, with the six-year-old Enders was like.

Me: Why is Kai wearing bandages?
Enders: He has “butterfly skin.”
Me: What is that?
Enders: It is a defect in his DNA.
Me: What is DNA?
Enders: Desoxyribonucleic acid.

The things kids know these days.

Currently, Hennes is puzzling over how he can correctly answer the following simple question, and why it is so difficult to do so: Tell me, Hennes, will your answer to this question be “no”?

Poor boy — but he seems to enjoy it.

Other articles

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store