Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Transition Acquisition

Posted by Neal on February 5, 2005

Doug learned a new expression a few weeks ago, and has been installing it firmly into his active vocabulary by using it any time it’s appropriate, and sometimes when it’s not. The expression is the conversational transition, If you want to know. “If you want to know, Adam’s in the basement.” “If you want to know, the mail just came.” “If you want to know, I need a straw for my soup.” (Yes, he uses a straw to get the last of his soup.) He’s correctly figured out that the expression allows him to present information that doesn’t relate to the current topic, but which he deems useful to his audience. He hasn’t quite gotten that it’s better for information that someone might want to know, not for information that they definitely do need to know (as in his request for a straw). He also hasn’t picked up on the slight tone of disrespect that the expression carries, that In case you’re interested lacks (unless spoken in an overtly sarcastic tone). Still and all, it’s amazing to see how much of the meaning and usage of the expression he has picked up correctly just from hearing it. The same goes for any child acquiring his or her entire language, but hearing sophisticated transitional phrases coming out of a child’s mouth really drives home the point.

Adam is acquiring some transitions, too. His latest addition is actually one that Doug acquired a couple of years ago, when he was four, Adam’s current age. That one Adam and Doug used perfectly the first time they ever used it. I think I first heard Adam use it when I was serving him his lunch and said, “Your breakfast is on the table,” and he said, “It’s actually lunch.” The fact that he and Doug acquired this particular transition at about the same age makes me wonder if the same will hold true for other transitions. I’ve seen plenty written in textbooks and parenting magazines about how children progress from babbling to two-word sentences to essentially adult language, how they overgeneralize rules (saying maked instead of made, etc.), and other issues, but I haven’t seen anything written about acquisition of the finer points of syntax, such as transitions.

Maybe one day I’ll search the literature on the subject, but for now I’ll just keep my ears open. I already know what transition I’ll be listening for: I see from my notebook that Doug acquired speaking of shortly after actually. He’d bitten a slice of bologna into the shape of a Christmas tree. After he’d shown me his work, he said, “Speaking of Christmas trees, Christmas is almost here!” It was used so perfectly I had to laugh. Back when I taught ESL, I once heard a student try to use speaking of, saying something like, “Speaking of the exam, have you graded them yet?” Yes, we had been speaking about the exam, but it was the main topic, not a tangential topic that had reminded him of something. Doug, on the other hand, intuitively grasped the tangential-vs.-main distinction, and used the transition to move from the main topic of his bologna art, to the tangential topic of Christmas. Will speaking of be Adam’s next transition acquisition? Stay tuned.

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