Who Needs Nouns? How Toddlers Learn to Speak

Children acquire language in very different ways depending on their native tongue. That can make a big difference for kids with learning disabilities

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Whether you know it or not, at some point in your life you’ve larped a balloon. You’ve also larped your hand, a flag and a baseball bat. Larping, in the world of nonsense words, means waving—at least in one small corner of academia—and that, it turns out, has helped reveal a lot about how children learn language in general, and how to help kids with language impairments in particular.

Among the 6,400-odd languages in the world, there are innumerable differences in grammar, tone, inflection and more. One of the less appreciated differences concerns the relative balance between nouns and verbs. English and other European languages tend to favor nouns a bit. Languages like Korean, Japanese and Hindi go the other way—with Korean speakers using about six verbs to every four nouns.

To determine how this affects the way children come to master their native tongues, professor of psychology Sandra Waxman of Northwestern University, and Sudha Arunachalam, assistant professor of speech and hearing sciences at Boston University, collaborated with a team of investigators in Korea for a study just published in Linguistic Acquisition: A Journal of Developmental Linguistics. In both labs on both sides of the world, small sample groups of 24-month-old children were shown a series of videos of people engaged in simple actions. An adult would describe what was going on as the kids watched, but would use an invented word in place of the verb. In the case of a person waving a balloon, the description was, “The girl is larping the balloon.” In Korea, an equally meaningless word was used in an otherwise correct sentence. The children were then shown two more side-by-side videos: in one a child was waving a spoon, in the other a child was bouncing a balloon.

(MORE: How the Brain Benefits From Being Bilingual)

“We preserve the action but use a new object in one case,” says Arunachalam, “and we preserve the object but with a new action in the other.” The kids were then all asked the same question: “Show me larping,” in English or Korean. Their answers differed dramatically and their native language seemed to be responsible.

The natural assumption would be that the Korean toddlers, growing up with a language that gives primacy to verbs, would do better on the test since they’d be likelier to be more sensitive to activities than to objects. But in fact the opposite was true: the English speakers were likelier to ignore the balloon in the second trial and correctly pay attention to the waving, while the Korean toddlers were more drawn to the balloon. The explanation, the investigators believe, was in the way the original statement, “the girl is larping the balloon,” was phrased.

“In Korean, nouns tend to be dropped from sentences,” says Arunachalam. “So a child would typically be told simply ‘the girl is larping,’ and figure out the rest. When you add the noun, Korean babies get overwhelmed, so they just latch onto something they recognize, which is the balloon.” The best way to improve the Korean children’s performance was to prime them differently, dropping not just the object of the sentence (the balloon) but the subject (the girl). A lean, quick declarative like, “Oh look, larping!” left no room for confusion.

(MOREUnderstanding How the Brain learns Two Languages)

The inevitable question, of course, is so what? This kind of scenario is not one that typically comes up in children’s lives and if you’re teaching your babies nonsense verbs, perhaps you shouldn’t be teaching them at all. But not all kids learn to speak equally well, and for those who are having challenges—especially those who require some kind of remedial education—it can make a very big difference to know exactly how their native tongue conditions them to learn .

“There are a lot of programs that teach you how to talk to a child,” says Arunachalam, “and those can differ from language to language.” Human beings may have 6,400 different ways to talk among themselves, but learning disabilities are universal. Knowing how any one child masters speech can help make recovery universal too.

(MORE: How Hand Gestures Can Make Kids Smarter)