Slips mark language development


UB researcher finds kids’ slips of the tongue reveal what they know about language

Contributing Editor

Freudian claims about the "meaning" of slips of the tongue not withstanding, when it comes to children, such errors reveal much more about what they know about the structure of language than they do about repressed thoughts, according to a UB psycholinguist who is the author of a groundbreaking book on the topic.

Slips of the tongue—not what young children say—reveal what they know about language, says Jeri J. Jaeger, associate professor in the Department of Linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences

For more than a decade, UB linguist Jeri Jaeger collected slips of the tongue from young children, including her own.

"When a child makes an error in speaking and then corrects himself or herself," she says, "then the observer can tell that the child knows what the appropriate pronunciation, word or syntax should have been."

In such a way do children's slips of the tongue inform the field of linguistics.

For more than a decade, Jaeger collected slips of the tongue from very young children, including her own, and analyzed them in terms of the light they shed on children's developing knowledge about their language.

In her groundbreaking new book, "Kids' Slips: What Young Children's Slips of the Tongue Reveal about Language Development" (Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, 2004), Jaeger demonstrates how early patterns of slips of the tongue offer important insight into the acquisition of linguistic representations and processes in young children between the ages of 18 months and five years.

This is the first volume of developmental linguistics research that documents this process as it occurs in real time. It also presents a new methodology and an important data source for undertaking this kind of research. Jaeger's work, other linguists say, will expand greatly their ability to uncover details of early language development.

Such a tongue slip as "Not by the chair of my hinny-hin-hin," a slip made by Jaeger's then 4-year-old daughter, Anna, for instance, should not be seen by parents as a mistake to be rectified.

"You can't make a slip of the tongue with a linguistic unit unless you already have learned that unit," Jaeger says.

"In this case, what happened is that the first consonant of 'hair'—'h'—and the first consonant of 'chin'—'ch'—were exchanged and then the 'h' repeated three times. This shows that Anna knew the sounds 'ch' and 'h' were distinct from each other, and could distinguish between the words 'chair' and 'hair' and 'chin.'

"Children's speech is full of pronunciation, word use and grammar that differs from those of adults," Jaeger points out, "but an utterance made by a child is analyzed as containing a slip of the tongue only if it is a rare deviation from the child's current language system, either in terms of phonology, lexicon, morphology or syntax.

"A slip is the exception that indicates the child's language acquisition is proceeding normally. Frequently, after a slip is made, the child looks confused and/or corrects the utterance, sometimes with slight emphasis, offering further evidence that the child considered it an error." She cites the example of her son Bobby, who at a young age commonly said, "I going, too." When instead he said, "Mom, I wanna going" it represented a slip of the tongue, which he immediately corrected to his usual form, "I going, too."

"Like adult slips," says Jaeger, "children's slips most frequently involve substitutions like the one cited above, or blending of words or letters (daughter Anna, who knew both names, blended "Piglet" and "Tigger" and said, "Hi, Tigit!"); additions (I want "clean plants" instead of "clean pants"); omissions ("me ad" instead of "me mad"); reversals ("shool schoes" for "school shoes"); movement ("My ummy taches" for "My tummy aches"); or perseveration (the word "Daddy" is repeated and substituted for "Mommy," resulting in, "Daddy, me watching Daddy's cooking").

"If a child repeatedly misuses the same word or words, however, it would not be considered a slip of the tongue," Jaeger says, but an indication that a child doesn't know the meaning of the word in question. She adds that many children's language productions that differ from the adult model are simply a function of the child not having yet learned the linguistic structure and fluctuations in usage.

Dan I. Slobin, professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, says that with this book, Jaeger has broken important new ground in the linguistics field.

Although slips of the tongue have proven to be the most reliable source of data for building theories of speech-production planning, Slobin says, "until 'Kids' Slips,' there has never been a corpus of such errors from children with which to work."

Of particular importance is the fact that the book contains not only explanatory text, but a data bank of 1,383 examples for future use in linguistics research. Jaeger also hosts a Web site containing adult data.

Slobin points out that Jaeger's work is particularly helpful in that it incorporates details of her methodology and findings with the implications these have for different aspects of language development, from phonetics, phonology and the lexicon to semantics, morphology and syntax.

"Her detailed documentation and analysis of children's speech errors is a significant contribution to our understanding of both speech processing and language development," he says, "and will be of particular interest to researchers in the field of language representation and processing in general, and those who research that topic in the fields of linguistics, developmental psychology and speech and hearing."

Noted linguist Lise Menn, professor of linguistics and associate member of the Center for Neuroscience, University of Colorado, Boulder, calls Jaeger's book "a very important contribution to the literature on language development because it provides a psycholinguistic window on what is conventionally called 'developmental psycholinguistics,' but is really almost entirely 'developmental linguistics.'

"This is the first hint," Menn says, "of how online processing operates in children. What is more," she says, "it is well-documented and given convincing theoretical interpretations."

Jaeger, who is affiliated with UB's Center for Cognitive Science, heads the Cross-Linguistic Slips of the Tongue Research Group in the Department of Linguistics. The group's goal, she says, is to develop a speech-production planning model that can account fully for differences among languages. The group currently is involved in the study of slips of the tongue in Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Thai, Korean, Spanish and Ewe, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Ghana and Togo.

Other recent linguistic research by Jaeger focuses on localization of linguistic function in the brain and sex differences, and was published in "A Positron Emission Tomographic Study of Regular and Irregular Verb Morphology in English" (Language, 1996) and "Sex Differences in Brain Regions Activated by Grammatical and Reading Tasks" (Neuroreport, 1998).