In early childhood, language develops step by step. Some of it will emerge naturally, but for this to happen children have to be exposed to language in the first place. We’ll explain a little bit about some of the most common mistakes kids make and how to help them out.

A Harvard Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker, analyzed spontaneous speech in toddlers. He was able to identify one specific grammar mistake as the most common: overregularization. He concluded that when your little one is learning new grammar rules, he can experience overregularization and transfer it to other words. For example, when he learns to add “-ed” to conjugate verbs and form the past tense, he transfers it to irregular verbs as well, ending up with phrases like “I builded a house” or “You readed it wrong”. When you repeat this to him, for example: “I readed it wrong?”, he will notice the mistake and think it’s silly for you to speak that way, which means he does know the correct use of the word. The overregularization can also happen with plurals. When your son learns to add “-s” at the end of a word, he can apply it to irregular plurals as well, saying “two foots” or “two mouses”.

Your little one has many irregular verbs stored in his memory, but at first his retrieval of these might fail. To accomplish a successful retrieval, he needs repeated encounters with the word. He might overregularize more with verbs that you use less often. The mistakes will decrease once he is more exposed to them.

There’s another study on language acquisition analyzed the parent-child interaction between 8 and 30 months. Researchers studied the expressive vocabulary that the toddlers had acquired. Results showed that children with stimulating parents were reported to use more irregular nouns and verbs, in addition to having more rapid rates of acquisition of irregular forms and longer utterances over time.

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We can conclude that exposure to language is key and that common grammar mistakes are part of the process of acquisition. What kind of mistakes will you be able to witness?

  • Overregularization: This is the type of mistake Steven Pinker referred to, when your child learns a new grammar rule and applies it to other words that don’t fit the rule.
  • Overextension: It consists of your little one choosing a word and using it to label several objects in his environment. For example, using the word “fend” to refer to a child he plays with at the park, and then reproduce it when meeting a puppy or the nice lady at the supermarket.
  • Underextension: When your little one acquires a word and fails to extend it to other objects. For example, if he calls his stuffed animal “puppy” and fails to identify a real puppy with the same label. According to the studies we mentioned, this can be less frequent.

These mistakes fall into the normal process of language acquisition. Your little one will follow his own pace and, one step a time, he will accomplish many language milestones, like the use of irregular verbs and plurals. Be patient with your little one and model the correct use of language for him so that he can master a vast vocabulary and an easier retrieval. Talking to him will go a long way!

More on language milestones:
Language milestones: Speak using plurals
Language development milestones

More on grammar errors: Learning the rules of language