Language Form
Riko Arfiyantama
• You will learn about the language development
of children from an early age to the ages of
four and five, their preschool years. This
period is being specially highlighted because
it is in these early years that children
experience tremendous cognitive and language
development. By the end of their fourth or
fifth year, most children will have acquired
the basic grammatical structures of adult
Components of Language Development
Morphology. Syntax and
Word meaning
functions and
This chapter focuses on:
• How do we gauge increasing language
complexity in young children’s speech
• What are the main characteristics of
morphological development of English
monolingual children by age 5?
Language Complexity of Young Children
• To estimate language complexity of young
English-speaking children, researchers examine
the increase in the length of their utterances.
You may recall from chapter 2, that the syntax of
children’s utterances is very different from adult
syntax. Typically, children’s utterances develop
from single words to two-word utterances to
three and more words. Most of these words such
content words such as nouns and verbs while
grammar words, such as prepositions and ‘be’
verbs, emerge much later.
Mean Length of Utterance (MLU)
• A method of calculation called the Mean
Length of Utterance or MLU (brown, 1973)
can be used for charting the growing
complexity in a child’s language. The
mean length of utterance is defined as
average utterance length of English
speaking preschoolers, measured in
To know the MLU, we have to consider the
number of morphemes in each utterance.
1. I want his balloons
2. Father working
How many utterances?
How many morphemes in each utterance?
The answer is five and three morphemes
To calculate the MLU, a sample size of at
least 50 utterances is needed. The following
formula is used:
• Total numbers of morphemes
• Total number of utterances
Let’s use a hypothetical example of Child X.
in a sample of 100 utterances that X
produced, 228 morphemes are counted. X’s
MLU is calculated as 228 divided by 100,
giving us the mean length of 2.28.
The purpose of calculating MLU is to compare children at
Chronological age isn’t always a good indicator or
predicator of young child’s language complexity because
children do not develop linguistically at the same rate.
It is important to bear in mind that MLU in itself does not
say anything about a child’s syntactic development.
Nevertheless, an increase in the morphemes per utterance
generally corresponds with the development of some early
language forms. Up to the age of four, an increase in MLU
is often an indication of language complexity.
Phases in the Development of Mean Length
of Utterances (based on Brown, 1973)
Approximate age
1.0 – 2.0
2.0 – 2.5
2.5 – 3.0
3.0 – 3.75
3.75 – 4.5
1 – 2.5 years
2 – 2.5 years
2.5 – 3 years
3 – 3.5 years
3.5 – 4 years
Morphological Development
Morphological development begins at the time
children have an MLU of 2. Early bound
morphemes are such suffixes as ‘ing’ and ‘s’.
There appears to be an acquisition order for some
bound morphemes. Like many other aspects of
language, the use of some morphemes is closely
related to a child’s growing understanding of
concepts such as ownership, and simple temporal
and spatial relationships.
Brown’s 14 Morphemes
• Table 2 presents the acquisition order of 14
morphemes according to Brown. The examples
in the table are taken from the language data
collected from a child acquiring Standard
English in Singapore. The data are
representative of the child’s language between
the ages of 1.8 to 3.4.
Morphemes in Order of Acquisition by the
age of 4 (based on Brown, 1973, p.274)
Present Progressive ‘ing’
without an auxiliary verb
Regular plural ‘s’
Irregular past
Possessive ‘s’
Uncontracted copula verb
Regular past ‘ed’
Regular third person
Irregular third person
Uncontracted auxiliary
Contracted copula
Contracted auxiliary
Tellytubbies eating Tubby-toast!
Ball in the box.
Cat on the chair.
Two ducks.
Maisy fell down.
Mummy’s dress.
I did not.
I’m a big girl.
I watched Donald Duck at school.
She draws like this
Wendy does.
He has got one.
I’m a bat
Daddy’s shaving
Key Features of Early Morphological
• Conceptually simple before conceptually complex
Children use such irregular past ‘forms as ‘came’, ‘went’,
and ‘fell’ much earlier than past tense ‘ed’
• Concrete action orientation before abstract relationship
The child is able to observe a concrete action unfolding
while listening to adult commenting on the action (e.g. I’m
putting your dress on now’, ‘look, the doggie’s running’)
• Overgeneralization and overuse of certain morphemes
Forms that children overgeneralise include the use of the
regular plural ‘s’ (e.g., ‘mouses’, ‘peoples’, ‘feets’. The other
examples are shown below:
 The juice comed out. (3.4)
 I caught the ball. (3.5)
Children may also overuse a particular morpheme they are
in the process of learning. In the example below, the child
(3.2) in a spontaneous out-burst during paly used ‘broken’
in ways she had never done before.
 Uh! No! My arm’s broken! It’s brokening! It wants to
Simple phonemic additions and phonological rule learning
• For example, a child at age two normally pronounces the
plural for ‘leaf’ (leaves) simply as /li:fs/ rather than /li:vs/.
Syntactic Development
Syntactic development is a gradual process and involves
learning at different levels. We will examine this aspect od
form development by looking at the development of
phrases, sentence types and overall sentence complexity.
Phrases are important elements of a sentence. Our
discussion will focus on the development of:
• Noun Phrase
• Verb Phrase
• Prepositional and infinitive Phrases
Noun Phrase
Children initial utterances consist of mainly single
nouns (e.g. ‘bird’, ‘book’, ‘moon’, ‘nose’). Before
their second birthday, most children’s utterances
will expand to include articles (e.g. ‘a bird’, ‘a
book’) and demonstratives (e.g. ‘that house’, ‘this
book’) (Wells, 1985). This is followed by expansion
that includes adjectives (e.g. ‘a big bird’, ‘a big
book’). See examples on page 87-88 for further
Verb Phrase
Verb Phrase development is closely related to the
acquisition of simple morphemes. Initially, only single verbs
are uttered, often without direct objects (e.g. ‘Mummy
driving’). Auxiliary verbs do not occur even with the
acquisition of the progressive ‘ing’ morphemes. By the time
a child shows an MLU of 3 morphemes or more, modal
auxiliary verbs such as ‘can’, ‘cannot’ and ‘must’ also begin
to appear (Example 8). The copula verb (‘be’) is also used
at about the same time. It is initially in an uncontracted form
(Example 9) but contractions are soon added to the child’s
developing repertoire (Example 10)
Prepositional and Infinitive Phrases
Young children often produce short and accurate
prepositional phrases with in and on (e.g., ‘in his mouth’, ‘in
the water’, ‘on the mat’, ‘on its nose’). The preposition
inside is also used frequently to form phrases (e.g., ‘inside
my tummy’, ‘inside Mike’s mouth’), while others such as ‘at’
and ‘under’ appear not long afterwards (e.g., ‘at the table’,
‘under there’). Prepositional phrases with to indicating
direction may also be used (e.g., ‘to the shops’, ‘to the
office’, ‘to school’). On the whole, the two commonest types
of prepositional phrases begin with ‘in’ and ‘on’, two
morphemes acquired soon after the second birthday.
Infinitive phrases also begin to appear in children’s speech
at around the same time. They contain the infinitive to and
a verb, typically preceded by the words ‘want’ (example 13)
or ‘going’ (example 14).
Sentence Types
There are four main types of sentences inn English
• Declarative
• Imperative
• Interrogative
• Exclamative
By the time children achieve an MLU of 3, they begin to
use the first three types of adult sentence forms regularly
(Owens, 2001).
A declarative sentence consists of a subject followed by a
verb, and often includes an object or a complement. Early
two-word utterances are often declarative in form even
though an auxiliary verb, which is obligatory in some
situations, is missing (e.g., ‘Doggie sleeping’, “Tubbies
running’). Example 16 illustrates the declarative form of
subject-verb-object/complement that emerges soon after
the child turns two. In some of her utterances, indirect
objects have also been included (17). In spite of the
absence of the grammar words such as ‘for’ and ‘to’
respectively, the declarative form a two-year old child
show, declarative sentences are produced before
morphemes for verb inflections or irregular past tense
forms are acquired.
The development of interrogative forms in English also
follows a predictable sequence. It is first signaled by
intonation and subsequently progresses to more
sophisticated constructions that involve the inversions of
sentence elements. The development of ‘wh’ questions is
particularly fascinating. It not only demonstrates children’s
growing skill at manipulating the syntax of English but also
their gradual development of abstract knowledge about
time and events. The examples here are once again based
on the language data of the child as she progressed
through the different stages.
Children first ask questions by adopting a rising tone. This
occurs as early as the emergence of single-word
utterances (Example 23). When children progress to twoword utterances, intonation is still used for signaling a
question. The word ‘what’ is generally the first ‘wh’ word to
appear, although at this stage, children are most likely
using it as a part of a set or formulaic expressions
(Example 24). This is probably due to the types of
conversation that adults engage young children in. For
example, when looking at picture books, the questions
“What’s this?” and “What’s that?” are frequently used to
‘test’ a child’s ability to name things. They have yet to learn
the way in which the word what can be used in combination
with content words. Soon what is used in ‘real’ questions
(example 25)
• Imperative sentences typically include a verb phrase at
the beginning of an utterance. Its functions range from
polite request to demands and commands. Sometimes
the name of the listener is also included either before the
verb phrase or after it. Imperative forms appear very
early. It is, however, difficult to ascertain whether some
declarative forms are emerging at the same time.
Sometimes this may be possible only through rich
interpretations based on clear communicative contexts.
• This form, imperative, continues to dominate much of
young children’s language use. Further development is
in the use of politeness markers such as ‘please’
Sentence Complexity
• Researchers often discuss children’s
syntactic development by examining the
way they construct longer utterances with
more complex structures. Let us now look
at three grammatical features:
coordination, subordination and clausal
• Co-ordinating links items of equal
grammatical status, such as noun phrases
(for example, ‘Julian and Mark are
brothers’). It also links clauses to create
compound sentences. The three main
conjunctions are ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘or’. ‘And’
is by far the most commonly used
conjunction even until the first two years in
primary school.
• A subordinate clause is a part of a larger
sentence structure and cannot stand alone. It is
also called a dependent clause. There are
several subordinating conjunctions, the more
common ones are ‘because’, ‘if’, ‘when’, ‘after’
and ‘before’. When children begin to develop
abstract knowledge about cause and effect,
clauses with ‘because’ in them also begin to
feature in their speech (example 39).
• Embedding refers to the insertion of one clause.
Relative clauses, which post-modify noun
phrases in the main clause, are an example of
an embedded clause. Relative pronouns include
‘that’, ‘who’, ‘whom’ and ‘which’ (e.g. “the girl
who lives in that house is very kind.”) Relative
clauses begin to emerge in some children’s
speech by age three (example 41).
Phonological Development
• Children begin to acquire an inventory of English
speech sounds from an early age. Nevertheless,
it isn’t until they reach early primary school (at
about the age of eight) when they can produce
most of the adult sounds and blends of the
English language (Owens, 2001). In general,
preschool children cannot maintain all the adult
phonetic contrasts, but they have systematic
ways of reducing adult pronunciation of words to
forms which are within their capabilities (Menn &
Stoel-Gammon, 1995)
Phonological Rules
• Young children’s phonological development is a long
and gradual process. Initial production of many words
and sounds differs quite substantially from adult form.
Very often the sounds may be so different that the
meaning of the sound is only understood through rich
interpretation. As table 6.3 shows, many of the more
difficult sounds are modified systematically – that is,
there are some phonological rules or processes that
determine most of these modifications (Menn & StoelGammon, 1995; Owens, 2001). The examples are from
the data of one child, recorded between the ages of two
to three-and-a-half years.
Interdependence with Morpheme Acquisition
An important feature of phonological development is the
influence it has on morphological development and vice
versa. The ability to perceive sounds, especially those that
are that are unstressed or in weak forms, is the first step to
producing new morphemes. Many morphemes, especially
the bound ones such as ‘ing’, ‘s’, ‘ed’ are not stressed in
speech. That is why most of the first words of children do
not contain these morphemes. Nevertheless, children soon
begin to attend to these sounds and notice the role they
play in concepts such as ownership, on-going action,
plurality etc. Before long these sounds are produced in
their speech to express the new concepts they acquire.
There is therefore a great deal of interdependence between
phonological development and morpheme acquisition.
This chapter explains three important areas of the
development of language form: morphemes,
syntax and phonology. All three areas are
interdependence. Development in phonology, for
example, will influence morpheme acquisition,
which will in turn have an effect on the
development of syntax.

Language Form Development