My three-year-old has been raised in a home of native-English speakers and all of her caregivers and teachers, up to this point in her life, have just happened to be native-English speakers. Why then, did I hear this child say things like, “That toy is hers but this toy is mines,” or “I really like the color pink and my friend Victoria doos too”? I am certain that she has never heard any of the adults in her life speak that way.
Well, Noam Chomsky, known by many as the Father of Modern Linguistics, was one of the first to point out in the early 1950s that children do not learn language by mere imitation or as a simple learned behavior with the goal of a reward. Children, he claimed, are biologically designed to learn language. He called their innate capacity to make sense of language the Language Acquisition Device. They use this LAD to receive input and make sense of it by constructing rules. Those rules may not be correct according to conventional grammar but they are logical according to the child and his current understanding of the input he has received. For example, we have concluded that my daughter’s use of mines instead of mine comes from her understanding that the other possessive pronouns end with an s (his, hers, yours, theirs). At least, that was our hypothesis at the time!
Children learn their first language quickly, some receive a lot of input and some receive very little. While the amount of input may result in a different level of vocabulary, an understanding of the structure and syntax of their language is going to be the same in most children of a similar age. This is what Chomsky called Universal Grammar.
While Chomsky’s theories have been challenged, most researchers will agree that humans do possess an innate ability and that making sense of language is a unique process different in many ways from learning of any other kind. There is also general agreement that the way we use our LAD to learn our first language is very similar to the way we use it to learn a second or third language.
What does this mean for a teacher of English language learners? We often become so focused on the language and content that we are teaching that we forget that each of our students is receiving that input and using his LAD to make sense of it. It is crucial that we listen to our students speak and read their writing to pay attention to the ways that our students “use but abuse” the language. As Jeff Anderson says, “Embrace the errors and all that they reveal.” Consistent errors reveal a rule that has been formed from the student’s LAD. Lay your red pen aside. Instead, consider the input that has been provided up to this point and then begin a conversation with the student such as, “I have heard you saying ____. I can see why you would think that makes sense. However, in English books, you will see ____. What do you think?”
Allow the student some time to process. Most likely, their LAD will soon form a new rule that more closely approximates the conventional rule you have gently exposed them to. This happened with my three-year-old. She is growing up and no longer says doos or mines. I kind of miss it!