How do children learn language rules?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    While adults tend to have difficulty learning a new language, children learn languages easily, mostly without explicitly being taught any of their rules. Our research examines a wide variety of “language rules” that children must master in order to have an adult-like understanding of language.

    In our studies, children (3 – 8 years) will hear some sentences and will be asked to make judgments about them. Children might be asked which of two pictures better matches a sentence, whether a puppet said a sentence “right” or “silly”, or which of two sentences sounds better. The sentences will be formed in different ways to see how children analyze grammar and structure when making judgments about the sentences. For example, these studies may explore concepts such as word choice and order (e.g. using words like “some” or “only” attached to different parts of sentences), overall sentence structure (e.g. “The dog is chasing the cat,” vs. “The cat is being chased by the dog”) or “conversation rules” (e.g. what kind of context is required when communicating with someone).

    Even before children reach 3 years of age, they master some fairly complicated grammar rules, while understanding of many other grammar rules continues to develop beyond age 6. We are investigating the specific order in which grammar rules are learned, why they are learned in this order, and how children manage to learn them.

    This research will help us better understand how children learn languages, and how we can best support language learning in both children and adults.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by the Language Acquisition Lab at MIT

        » Language Acquisition Lab at MIT

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Playing With Language

    Find the animal puppets or costumes in the Children’s Gallery and encourage your child to imagine that s/he is one of the animals with you.

    As you pretend to be the animal with your child, narrate the behaviors or activities that you might do together (e.g. make a home, look for food). Try transforming some of these sentences by changing the grammar or structure of the sentence. For example, instead of saying, “It is the fox that is hiding in the den,” try saying “It is the den where the fox is hiding.” Or, instead of saying “Only the robin has an egg,” try saying “The robin only has an egg.”

    Does your child notice when you are bending the rules of grammar? Although some of these sentences may sound strange to adults, children may be more willing to accept when some of these “rules” are broken, as their understanding of grammar conventions is still developing.

    Activities to Try at Home

    Story Time

    In many children’s books, the author often bends the rules of grammar to keep a story whimsical or rhyming (e.g. Dr. Seuss). Read a book with your child that “breaks” grammar rules, and notice how your child responds to the story. Can your child recognize when a sentence is strange? Can s/he tell you why or how it should be written?

    You can try this again, several months later, to see how your child’s language skills develop over time.

Research Spotlight

Contact Living Laboratory staff:

livinglaboratory@mos.org