Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Come Lord Jesus be our guest...

Every evening before dinner we say our dinner prayer. Or more accurately, the parents say it, Tommy sits silently and Maria says the first half and the last 2 words. "Come Lord Jesus, be our guest.. blessed. Amen." Recently, I began trying to teach her the second half of the prayer: "and let these gifts to us be blessed." But, no matter how many times I said it, no matter how slowly I did each word, it still came out "Come Lord Jesus be our guest, mm mmm blessed. Amen!"

It took me several days to realize that this was a futile task right now. Apparently, I had forgotten all my early graduate training! The reason she couldn't repeat the 2nd part of the prayer was because of the structure of the sentence. The second part of the prayer is a quite complex: it has a causative (let...) and a passive (be blessed). She might be able to do the causative, but Id' forgotten that she's far too young for the passive "these gifts be blessed".

One of the very useful discoveries about child language is that children are generally not able to imitate sentences or structures that are not yet part of their grammar. They make mistakes. They avoid the structure. While they can learn them by rote drilling, it's much more difficult than waiting until the child has the structure in their grammar. In 2 or 3 years, I have every faith that Maria will be rattling off the dinner prayer without a hitch.

Passive voice is acquired late in English, somewhere between 4 and 6 for most children. Perhaps even more importantly, it's rarely used, especially in conversation with children. It's the kind of construction that shows up mostly in academic or scientific writing, legal testimony and the like. We don't go around asking our children "Was the toast eaten?" "How was the lamp broken?" We prefer the active voice in English, "Did you eat your toast?" "How did you break the lamp?" We like to identify the actor.

But that doesn't hold true for other languages. Children acquiring some languages (Sesotho or Indonesian for example) appear to acquire passive early. Which goes to show that there's nothing cognitively difficult about the passive voice. Indeed, there is something useful about the passive. Saying: "The milk was spilled" would allow a child to get out of specifying who spilled the milk. Unfortunately for the young English speaking child, their best option is to deny being the actor. Not stating the actor just isn't part of their language. In other languages, the passive is acquired early, most likely is linguistically less complex (a single verb form, not this weird be + past participle), and it is used in every day conversation much more often.

All of this goes to show that language acquisition is a complex dance between what a child hears, what a child can do and the language around them. For Maria, our dinner prayer is probably the only place she hears the passive voice on a daily basis. So, for a while yet, it will be "Come Lord Jesus be our guest, blessed. Amen!" Amen indeed.

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