‘Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin,” the three little pigs taunted the big bad wolf. When Anna Van Valin was 4 years old, she pronounced the phrase ”not by the chair of my hinny hin hin” and unwittingly advanced the study of children’s language when she did.
Anna’s talk was often observed. Her mother, Dr. Jeri Jaeger, is a linguist at the State University of New York at Buffalo who collects the speech slips that children make in order to understand how they learn language. For two decades Dr. Jaeger has collected data wherever she found available children (and willing parents): preschools, the supermarket checkout line and at home from her three children, Anna, Alice and Bobby (now 22, 20 and 18).
A photo of Anna as a 6-year-old appears on the cover of Dr. Jaeger’s new book, ”Kids’ Slips,” to be published this month..
Anna’s first error occurred when she was 16 months old. She rattled out the phrase, ”one, two, three,” but accidentally pushed ”two” and ”three” together, which came out something like ”twee.”
In such an instance, Dr. Jaeger said: ”Many parents get freaked out and think their child is making mistakes. But these slips of the tongue are entirely normal. In fact, they show that a child is acquiring language as they should be.”
She explained, ”You can’t make a slip of the tongue with a linguistic unit if you haven’t learned that unit.” Anna’s ”twee” indicated that she knew both sound units ”th” and ”t.”
Likewise, if a child says ”I’m going to a birthday party yesterday, I mean, tomorrow,” that’s a slip. But when a child says ”yesterday” and ”tomorrow” interchangeably on a regular basis, it means he or she doesn’t know the meanings of the words.
How consistently an error shows up is one way for a parent to judge a child’s development: the rarer the error, the more likely it is to be an accident. To the untrained adult ear, much of children’s talking sounds full of mistakes, but Dr. Jaeger says a slip of the tongue occurs when the child deviates from her own language system, not when she doesn’t sound like an adult.
When he was nearly 2, Jaeger’s son, Bobby, asked for more ”tee tuffs” (for cheese puffs). Dr. Jaeger instantly recognized the slip because Bobby usually called them ”tee puffs.” (The ”ch” sound is difficult for young children to pronounce, so it’s normal for them replace it with an easier sound.) To judge what a child’s slip is, a scientist must know how the child normally talks. That’s why Dr. Jaeger found it easier to collect slips from her three children because she had tracked their language development from an early age.
Collecting slips at home was often a challenge. She tried to be discreet, often excusing herself from the dinner table to go write down a slip, only to hear her husband, Robert Van Valin, himself a linguist, tease the children: ”Somebody made a speech slip! Who made a speech slip?”
Dr. Jaeger figures that’s how her children came to put a label on a speech behavior.
For her part, Anna Van Valin claims that her mother’s subterfuge was as unnecessary as her father’s tease. ”I remember many moments when I’d say something and she’d very stealthily pull something out to write it down,” she said. ”She’d pull out her notebook, and I would say, ‘What did I say wrong?’ She’d sometimes explain what I said if I badgered her, but she really held back from that because she didn’t want me to be self-conscious.”
”Being a child of linguists is, like, very odd,” Ms. Van Valin said, ”because your parents get excited about these technical, very boring things. Most 5-year-olds don’t know what a phoneme is. I did.”
People often ask Dr. Jaeger how she knows that her kids weren’t making slips on purpose to make her happy.
”I find that a weird question,” Dr. Jaeger said, adding that adults don’t intentionally slip to make each other happy (if they live in a household of linguists) because it’s difficult to make an intentional but realistic-sounding slip.
Dr. Jaeger points to herself as evidence. ”I know everything there is to know about slips of the tongue, and I still make them in great abundance,” she said. Her most recent one occurred the night before. After helping her daughter Anna move into an apartment in Brooklyn, Dr. Jaeger, exhausted, announced that ”our work done is here,” which prompted calls from her husband and Ms. Van Valin to write the slip down.
Dr. Jaeger sought slips from others’ children as well, ”just to prove it’s not just my own kids who make them,” she said. Adult slips of the tongue have been studied by linguists for 30 years as evidence of how the brain processes language. But children’s slips were ”basically uninvestigated,” said Dr. Joseph Stemberger, a linguist at the University of British Columbia who also kept a diary of his two daughters’ speech development in the 1980’s but has moved on to studying slips in the laboratory, where one can control the word types.
Experts like Dr. Jaeger eventually wanted to know if child slips were the same as adult slips. She concludes that children make all the slips that adults do. They make errors that involve individual sounds, whole words and phrases. Moreover, they acquire their ability to slip as their language abilities progress. For instance, ”an adult might say ‘journicle article,’ but little kids don’t do that because they don’t have the word structure developed yet,” Dr. Jaeger said.