Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dora the Exploder meets Bob the Building

Starting at about age 2 ½ , my kids each went through a period where we watched popular TV shows, just not quite the ones the networks were broadcasting. Tommy always asked to see "Dora the Exploder" and Maria has a passion for "Bob the Building" and will sing loudly and confidently: "Bob the Building, can we fix it? Bob the Building, yes we can!"

But it's not just TV characters that suffer this fate. For a couple of years, malaprops have been sprinkled into my kids' vocabularies. The traditional kids' song Down by the Bay has become "Down by the Bed..." Baa baa black sheep has "one for my master, one for my game, and one for the little boy who lives down the plane." We've talked about "snowflags" (snowflakes) and "snow lizards" (blizzards). Some of these are simple sound substitutions. But others are clever combinations of sound similarities and analogies with other words they know. So, Maria was talking about "eyelips" the other day. If your mouth has lips, why not your eyes?

They mishear words too, coming up with their own mondegreens. For a long time, Tommy would announce that something was on "this eye" (this side) and point to his eye to indicate the side. Maria was wearing a 'princess hat' one day (a visor upside-down so it looked like a tiara). I said, "oh, you're wearing a tiara. A crown." "I'm not a cwown, I'm a pwincess!" She had misheard crown as clown. When my sister was learning to write, she asked my mom how to spell "smat". "There is no such word," replied my mother. "Yes, there is!" insisted my sister. "Well, can you use it in a sentence?" "Sure, I got crumbs on my play-smat." (placemat).

I love to collect these, not just because they're funny but because they show great things about learning words. Early vocabularies tend to be 'sparse'. Each word tends to be relatively unique – they don't overlap much either in sounds or meaning. In technical terms, they don't have many words in the same neighborhood. But, as more words are added, some of these new words come close to ones already in a child's lexicon. These errors signal a new complexity in how words are being stored and organized in the mind. Instead of keeping the neighbors at bay and learning words that are distinct from one another, children are filling in the neighborhood, and sometimes the boundaries between the 'lots' aren't clear. Thus these malaprops and mondegreens are a side effect, if you will, of rapid vocabulary growth.

These errors also reveal just how hard children are working to acquire language. We think of language acquisition as 'effortless', and yet it's not. Imagine being in a country where many of the words you encounter are new and unfamiliar. If you've ever experienced this, you know how exhausting it can be to try to make sense of what's happening around you. This is the situation children find themselves in day after day. They are not sitting passively by, waiting for words to come to them. Children are actively trying to segment and make sense out of the words they hear. As children learn new words, they try first to find sounds sequences that match the words they already know, and sometimes they miss.

But, the amazing thing is not the errors they make, but how many times they get words right. These errors are actually pretty rare. Estimates of word learning suggest that preschool children are learning 3-5 new words a day (a figure which increases during the school years), leading to a vocabulary of around 4,000-5,000 words by age 5. Learning 3-5 words a day should give rise to many opportunities to get the word wrong. Children hear a word once, maybe twice, and get enough to get the gist of it, but its representation is still pretty fuzzy. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Despite this incredibly rapid increase in vocabulary, I've managed to collect maybe 50 malaprops and mondegreens from my own kids. Even if I've underestimated the number by half, or a quarter, that's still a small fraction of the words in their vocabularies that they've gotten 'wrong'. But, even when they got it wrong, they were usually at least in the right neighborhood.


(Wikipedia defines mondegreen as follows "The American writer Sylvia Wright coined it in an essay "The Death of Lady Mondegreen", which was published in Harper's Magazine in November 1954. She wrote:
When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques. One of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They have slain the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
The actual line is "And laid him on the green", from the anonymous 17th century ballad "The Bonnie Earl O' Murray".)

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