Distinguished Lecture Series

Professor Eve Clark

"Transformations That Highlight Language Acquisition"

by Angela McHaffie, Head Teacher - Twos Friday PM
The Bing Times - June 1996

On Thursday, May 27, members of the Bing Nursery School community -- parents, teachers, staff and Stanford affiliates -- assembled in East Room to hear Professor Eve Clark, Chair of Stanford Department of Linguistics, discuss her research on young children's language acquisition. The small chairs and tables were removed from East Room and it was transformed into a "lecture hall" for adults.

Professor Clark outlined the transformations that highlight the language acquisition process, explaining the extraordinary task that is involved in children's learning how to talk. From early infancy on, children are observing the speech of the people around them. In the first year of life, an average child knows ten words, by age two 100-600 words, by age six 14,000-17,000, and every year thereafter another 3,000. Thus, during early childhood, children can learn an average of ten words a day,

With their growing vocabulary, children make use of the grammatical structures they know and combine the words they have learned in ways that make sense to them. Children approximate their language to become closer to the adult model. Therefore, a two-year-old might say, "Mommy gone out," while a three-year-old might say, "Mommy went to go in the garden," and a six-year-old might say, "My mom went out to the garden."

The adult's role in children's language development should center around providing a supportive model. Clark's research points to indirect correction as the most effective way of supporting our children's language development. For example, when a child says, "Do the orange for me," it is effective to paraphrase or expand the child's statement in a conventional way such as, "I will peel the orange for you." Clark says, "It takes a while for children to see that what is expressed by adults is what they want to say."

Part of the impetus for Professor Clark's interest in linguistics was the language development of her own child. She spent about twenty hours per week creating a detailed journal in which she transcribed her son's vocabulary and grammatical structures. She also chronicled the context in which his language development occurred -- who was talking to him, whom he was talking to, and in what situation. After she had examined patterns in her own son's language development and had refined her methodology, she extended her questions and observations to a larger group of children.

Clark went on to explain in more detail some of the studies she has conducted, since the early 1970's, at Bing Nursery School. In all these studies she has invited children into the game rooms to play word games that correlate with children's innate desire to engage in "word play" -- rhyming, picking out words and phrases and coining new ones. As a result, she reported, children have found these games fun and have always been willing to play them.

In some of her studies, Professor Clark focused on young children's understanding of terms indicating spatial relationships, like the prepositions "in," "on," and "under." We often overestimate young children's understanding of these terms, she finds, showing that two-year-olds who can put a ball in a cup when asked to do so, will also act in just the same way if asked to put the ball under the cup. Other studies have looked at young children's proclivities for coining new words, for example by combining words they already know. Even two-year-olds seem adept, she shows, at creating new words like "snowcar," "watercake," and "Babarbook." Still other projects have examined the way in which children learn to use the passive voice.

Almost all of Clark's initial studies of language acquisition have been conducted at Bing, although many of these studies have subsequently been replicated in other languages and in other countries. She was quick to point out that the physical set up, range of ages, and diversity among the children of Bing Nursery School have made it an ideal setting in which to conduct her research. Bing Nursery School has been at the core of her important research in linguistics, and has benefited greatly, in turn, from her presence.