Monday, March 5, 2007

Bricklayer vs. Concrete Mixer

Parents with more than one child are drawn to compare, even if we know we shouldn't. "He's my introvert and she's my extrovert." "She's my mathematician and he's my poet." And we speculate on the source of the differences among our children. "She's got her father's eyes, and he's got mine." "Oh, she's just like her dad!" Learning language is no exception – different children seem to go about the task of learning language in different ways.

Tommy was what I'd like to call a "brick layer" – he started speaking word by word. He amassed a huge vocabulary (250 words or more) before he started to combine words. "Doggy ride" was his first word combination, at age 22 months, while pointing to a picture of Clifford the Big Red dog riding on top of a bus. But, having declared "doggy ride." he didn't combine words again for several more weeks. Just as he was turning two, he moved slowly from one word to two. Then three. He seemed to need to examine and place each word carefully before moving on.

Tommy's bricks (words) were placed long before the mortar came. The mortar, in this case, being the grammatical words and endings that tie things together. So, his first sentences were things like "Doggie ride" "Momma go." Only after he mastered 2-3 word sentences did we get "Doggie rides" and "The doggie rides" came even later. He used names (Tommy, Momma) to refer to people for a long time, "Where Momma going?" "Tommy climb up!" or just plain "climb up!" Apparently, he found pronouns such as you and I unnecessary. He took the big pieces of language and laid them together, brick by brick, then slowly added mortar to build up the language.

His learning of the sound rules of English worked the same way – slow and careful, making sure he'd gotten each part before moving on. When he was very small (20 months), nearly all of his words began with a consonant and ended with a vowel (CV). So, book was [bu], car was [ka] (as was clock), blanket was [baba], bounce was [ba]. Sometimes, stymied by complex words, he resorted to getting the right number of syllables and leaving it at that. So, helicopter was 'wawawawa' and garbage truck was "gagaga".

Given all the changes he made to words, it took a translator to decode a lot of his language. Many of our neighbors and acquaintances were amazed and bemused by my translations. When Tommy announced: 'wu. gagaga. da' and I responded "Oh look (wu), the garbage truck (gagaga) is there (da)," I think they thought I was making things up. But, as time went on, he slowly added consonants to the ends of words. First he added sounds to the ends of words and we got 'gaash' for garbage, and 'tuck' for 'truck.' Then he added sounds to the middle got 'gachidge' for garbage. And finally, well after age 3, he added several sounds to the beginnings of words, and we had 'garchdige twuck' with all the parts of the syllables in more or less a recognizable fashion. As with his sentences, he built his words sound by sound, slowly adding them together. And typical of bricklayers, when he learned a rule, it appeared all at once. So, when he discovered that he'd been missing a whole syllable at the beginning of words, that 'recycling' wasn't just 'cycling', he suddenly began to add 're-' to ALL the words that began with unstressed initial syllables. So, we talked about 'repellers' (propellers) and teacher 'Rechelle' (Michelle). And just for good measure, we added "re-" to some words that didn't need it. So, we talked about 'recycling retrucks' and 'rebatteries'.

Our bricklayer Tommy contrasts strongly with our second child, Maria. Maria is a "concrete mixer". Her language came out all at once, or so it seemed. I can remember her calling up the stairs at 16 months saying "Momma, where are you?" (OK, so it was 'mama wa aaa uuuu?' but the meaning was clear.). She did have individual words, but her progress from one to a several words was much more fluid. She learned both words and phrases all at the same time. I can't tell you exactly when she started doing two word phrases, and it's not just because she's the second child! It's because they appeared nearly at the same time as her words did. So, 'bye plane' and 'that's the eyes' occurred at the same time as book, Abby and no (17 months). Her 'mortar', pronouns such as you or I and the endings on verbs or nouns, appeared quickly too, mixed together with the words. Instead of laying down bricks, she built a whole wall! And we're never quite sure what's going to be in that wall. She looked at a picture of a boy yesterday and say "That boy reminds me of Tommy." Holy cow, what a phrase for a 33 month old.

Unlike her brother, master of the rule, she's much more fluid with her rules. Sometimes she'll add the endings – so sometimes she walks and sometimes she just plain walk, no ending. Sometimes she'll come close to the endings, but not quite – so she 'spelt' her name, sounding quite quaint and old fashioned, while her brother only ever spelled.

With pronunciation, again, her structures came out all at once. No slow building up from consonant-vowel, to consonant-vowel-consonant for her. She took a running leap and jumped into the whole word. Some of her leaps were spectacularly successful. "Garbage" a word which gave her brother fits for over a year, appeared at 22 months as a clear "garbish". On the other hand, "The Laurie Berkner Band" a phrase she attempted at 31 months came out as "wuba babna", a spectacular failure (missing several syllables and substituting lots of sounds) that took us nearly an hour to figure out! And that's the problem with being a concrete mixer – if your wall falls, you don't have any pieces to pick up, you just have to start all over again.

My children, much to my amusement, fit a lot of the generalizations in the literature about variations in style. First borns tend to be 'brick layers' (or referential or analytic learners). They start with words, and build up a large vocabulary before combining words. They apply rules across the board. They resist imitating words. They start by combining content words and add pronouns and grammatical words later. Later borns tend to be 'concrete mixers' (holistic or expressive learners). They start with more phrases (many social phrases), have a more gradual transition from single to many words. They're more variable in their application of rules. Their sentences contain more of the grammatical mortar and pronouns from the beginning.

So, where do these differences come from? Are they real? A good question. Is this another thing to chalk up to first vs. second born? Maybe not. While first borns tend to be bricklayers, girls also tend to be bricklayers (and first born girls even more so). Boys have more of a tendency toward concrete mixing. Gender thus seems to play a role. Or is it how parents react to children – talking differently to boys than girls? Or parenting – do parents of single/first children have more time to label, more time to wait for single phrases to be built up to sentences? Or is it personality? My first born bricklayer is an introvert. He's not going to lay anything out there until he's sure. He's also very interested in things. Labeling things, classifying them is important to him. When he was two, he commented Moon has no doors. Airplanes have doors. My second born concrete mixer, on the other hand, is an extrovert - getting out whole social phrases (where are you? what's your name?) was important to her. She's very interested in people. When she was two, her question about the moon was Where is the moon's families? Did her interest in people and relationships facilitate her language, or is she more interested in people and relationships because she's got the language to communicate about them? The research data is certainly mixed. It's hard to make generalizations, and even harder to find a 'cause' for the variability.

The fascinating thing is that these different approaches do not produce different results in the long run as far as we can tell. Each approach gets a child to language. Everyone has to learn words. Everyone has to learn to pronounce. Everyone has to learn the grammatical bits that hold the sentences together. Whether you acquire these parts as individual bricks and mortar or all in a mix, they do come together in the end. And once the wall is there, it's apparently irrelevant whether it was poured from concrete or built with bricks.

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