My daughter is now two years old, and she’s well on her way to simultaneously acquiring both English and Mandarin Chinese (with a little Shanghainese thrown in for good measure). We’re using the “One Parent One Language” approach, and it’s working pretty well.
I’ve taken a keen interest in my daughter’s vocabulary acquisition, but recently I’ve also been paying close attention to her grammar in both English and Chinese. Those that follow the debate regarding order of acquisition and whether or not a child’s natural acquisition should be closely mirrored by language learning materials should not be surprised to learn that her grammar pattern acquisition is all over the place. What I mean is that the grammar patterns she can or cannot use do not match well to what a beginner learner of Chinese should or shouldn’t be able to use after a year of study.
So what I’m going to do in this post is briefly comment on her mastery of some well-known grammar points, and also highlight some of the more surprising ones. I’ll be using the Chinese Grammar Wiki’s breakdown by level for reference (the order, low to high, is: A1, A2, B1, B2).
Grammar Points My Daughter Can Use
- Measure word “ge“ (A1)
So she’s counting things the Chinese way, with 个. Picked this one up pretty quick, it seems.
- “Er” and “liang” (A1)
I was wondering how quickly she’d master the use of 二 and 两, but she had it down easily, before she was two. (Obviously, she has no need for most of the fringe cases; she just needs to count stuff.) I know her waipo (maternal grandmother) practiced this one with her a lot.
- Expressing possession (A1)
It took her a while to get the hang of 的 for possession, just as it took her a while to get the hand of “‘s” for possession in English. Neither is totally consistent (she sometimes forgets to use them), but she’s basically got them down.
- Questions with “ne“ (A1)
When an adult learns Chinese, you learn the pattern “____ 在哪儿？” to ask where something is. My daughter totally skipped that, and uses 呢 exclusively to ask where things are. This is a use of 呢 you don’t normally learn as an adult student of Mandarin until a bit later, but there’s no arguing that it’s simpler! Kids like linguistic shortcuts.
- “meiyou” as a Verb (A1)
She doesn’t know that 没 is a special adverb of negation used with 有. She just knows what 没有 means as a whole. And it works!
- Negative commands with “bu yao“ (A1)
Yeah, two year olds can be a bit demanding and uncooperative. 不要 is a key tool in her arsenal of terribleness, and it’s one of the few Chinese words that she likes to use when she’s otherwise speaking English, as well.
- Standard negation with “bu“ (A1)
Again, very useful when she wants to be contrary. She uses 不 pretty indiscriminately, putting it in front of verbs, verb phrases, and adjectives, but sometimes also nouns.
- Expressing “with” with “gen” (A2)
I say she “knows” this, but she uses it exclusively with the verb 去, for talking about “going with (someone).” Again, it gets the job done!
- Change of state with “le” (A2)
This is another one of those grammar points that she has a very limited mastery of, but makes good use of. She knows and uses the phrases “来了,” “走了,” and a few others. (Interestingly, she often uses “来了” as a substitute for the existential 有, meaning “there is.”)
- Negative commands with “bie” (A2)
Again, a great pattern for the terrible twos.
- Reduplication of verbs (A2)
She uses this with specific, high-frequency verbs, like 看 (看看).
- “-wan” result complement (B1)
Obviously, she has no clue how to use complements. She learns phrases, and the phrase “吃完了” gets used a lot. (Her English equivalent for this is “finished” or “done,” not “finished eating” or “done eating.”)
- Expressing the self-evident with “ma“ (B1)
嘛 (not 吗) is notoriously tricky for adults to get the hang of, but my daughter jumped right in and started using it early. Sometimes it feels like she’s not using it quite right, but clearly that doesn’t faze her. You’ll notice that any Chinese 3-year-old uses 嘛 pretty liberally, so it’s clearly something that kids pick up really quickly, and adult learners over-analyze.
Grammar Points My Daughter Cannot Use
- Personal pronouns (A1)
This might seem surprising, but these ubiquitous, abstract words for expressing “I” (我), “you” (你), and “he/she/it” (他/她/它) are totally unnecessary in the beginning and ignored by kids for quite a while. My daughter is just know starting to use “I” and “我,” but she’s still just experimenting. (Previously, she used “baby” and her own name instead of “I.”)
- “Can” with “hui” “neng” and “keyi” (A2)
Here’s something elementary learners spend quite a bit of time mastering, but my daughter has decided to shelve the use of modal verbs 会, 能, and 可以 altogether, for the time being. (She seems to be making some progress on English “can,” however.)
- Basic comparisons with “bi” (A2)
Doesn’t need it, doesn’t use it. She confines her “comparisons” to just nouns and adjectives.
- “Shi… de” construction (B1)
Yeah… doesn’t need 是……的, doesn’t use it. She hears this pattern in questions all the time, however. She’s slowly soaking up the input.
- “Ba” Sentence (B1)
This one is notoriously difficult for adult learners, and kids avoid it for a while, too, as it turns out. My daughter definitely understands the structure, though, whether or not she even notices the presence of 把 in the sentences she understands. She never uses it.
- “Bei” sentence (B1)
She definitely doesn’t use 被. No need for passive at all, and she doesn’t hear it much either, at this point. I’m sure linguists have studied at what point kids acquire passive constructions and why, but it’s clearly a lower linguistic priority for kids.
None of this is scientific; these are just casual observations. Watching my daughter simultaneously acquire two languages, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the differences between the way children and adults acquire languages. Whether or not there are neurological limits is still being debated, but it’s clear to me that there are differences, in practice.
What I’m seeing:
- Kids can get by without pronouns. Without pronouns! How many adults could do that, even after being told they’re not high priority? I’ve personally observed quite a few people that try to start learning a language by translating the English of what they want to say, and their first question is frequently, “how do I say ‘I’?” You don’t need to start this way, but adults feel they need to.
- My daughter was not at all tripped up by measure words, but after mastering numbers 1-10 in both languages she zoomed ahead with her Chinese numbers, while the irregular teens in English (“eleven,” “twelve,” “thirteen,” etc.) really slowed her down.
- By putting utility above all else, my daughter frequently starts “using grammar patterns” before she understands how they work at all, simply by learning phrases. I don’t mean she doesn’t intellectually understand grammatical concepts (of course she doesn’t), I mean she doesn’t even know that she can put 完 on the end of other actions; she just knows how to say 吃完了 when she finished eating, because that’s all she needs from 完 at this point. The memorized phrase will be generalized into a “pattern” when it becomes necessary. This is actually a point that adults should really learn from: over-analysis frequently slows adults way down and delays meaningful communication. This is also the logic behind the approach to learning 了 on the Chinese Grammar Wiki; learning patterns in a gradual process is actually the best way to learn how to use 了. And it’s usually best to memorize a phrase you need first, then generalize later.
There’s a lot I could say here, but I’ll stop now. Comments are welcome! I’m especially interested in hearing about relative order of grammar acquisition of my readers’ children.