Baby talk, first language acquisition

Pronoun acquisition in toddlers DRAFT

When do children develop pronouns? Children develop at various pace but pronouns typically develop in a predictable order:

Between age 2 and 2.5, children acquire the pronouns: my, me, mine, and you. Between age 2.5 and 3, children acquire the pronouns: your, she/he, we. Between age 3 and 3.5, pronouns include they/them, us, his/her. From age 3.5, children acquire reflexive pronouns (e.g. yourself, myself, then her/himself, themselves, etc.)

Pronoun errors in pronoun acquisition (18-24 months)

As toddlers develop language in speech, they naturally make age-appropriate pronoun errors such as "I" for "you" and "you" for "me" as part of the learning process. They often make reversal errors when using these pronouns at about 20 months and complete the acquisition of personal pronouns at age two or so.

It's no different in sign language acquisition. Children acquiring sign langauge also tend to make the same kind of pronoun errors as do children acquiring spoken language.

Both speaking and signing children begin to use personal pronouns at about same age (around 18 months) and make the same kinds of errors. At this age, pronoun reversal errors may occur and names may be used instead of pronouns (ages 1;6 to 2;0). They use correct personal pronouns (age 2;0 to 2;6).

"The performance of deaf children matches that of hearing, both qualitatively and chronologically" (Rodda 1987, Petitto 1987), not putting the visual modality at an advantage.

Gestural pointing vs linguistic pointing

Despite the similar form in its appearance, communicative gestural pointing is different from linguistic pronominal pointing from the standpoints of brain processing and language acquisition stages.

Evidence 1: Gestural pointing emerges at about 9 months in both non-signing and signing children while pronominal pointing emerges at around 18-20 months or so in signing children which falls in the same stage or milestone as found in spoken language.

Evidence 2: Classical reversal errors, which emerges in the stage of personal pronouns found in both spoken and signed language acquisition, is a crucial indicator of the same timeline for language acquisition in both sign language and speech language.

Evidence 3: Since pronominal pointing (pronouns) in sign language is transparent or iconic for adults, do signing toddlers acquire pronouns in signed languages earlier than speaking toddlers? Neuroscientist Dr Petitto, who also had studied manual babbling, asked this question in her study. Her study confirmed that the answer is NO.

In Petitto's study, signing children don't acquire pronouns earlier than non-signing children. It's another important evidence that language is amodal, in addition to the linguistic activities in the brain.

The study on pronominal pointing is fascinating and exciting that I wanted to see for myself in my documentation of my baby's language acquisition in ASL from birth in a native ASL-speaking environment. In my diligently documented observations, what I observed confirmed that the milestones in signed language acquisition were on the same timeline as spoken language.

From gestural pointing to pronominal pointing

In a study (Dr. Petitto), pointing to people may drop at the stage between age one and 18 months. On the other hand, in another study (Hatzopoulou), the child in Greek Sign Language continued to use gestural pointing prior to acquiring pronominal pointing. Likewise, up to this point, Juli (age 1;5,3) had been pointing to me (the mother), her father, and objects.

In Juli's case, gestural hand-pointing began to emerge at 5 months. Gestural finger-pointing emerged at 8-9 months. Pointing to herself emerged at 13 months. Her lingusitic pointing probably emerged at 18 months or later, but she also used gestural pointing. At that point, it was ambiguous and uncertain. But, something unexpectedly came up somehow more exciting. Her possessive pronouns (i.e. YOUR/YOURS, MY/MINE) showed reversal errors!

Possessive pronouns were extremely helpful in my study because the handshape (flat B) for possessive pronouns is different from the handshape of personal pronouns (forefinger). Watching the process of acquiring pronouns was fascinating with a few interesting discoveries.

Remember babies and toddlers develop at different pace, but the stages are similar.

A case study of pronominal pointing

It all began when 13-month-old Juli (age 1;1) found my glasses on the drawer and took them one morning. I caught her standing near the doorway, holding my glasses with a sheepish grin. I pointed to the glasses and told her "it's mine!"

Juli responded mine. I told no, ix-glasses mine. She again signed mine.

At lunch that same day, Juli pointed to the glasses and signed "eyeglasses". I replied mother, mine Juli leaned forward slightly and watched closely as if she was studying. She also pointed to the camera and signed "mine." No, it's mine (mother's). Several times throughout the lunch.

Curiously, I tested Juli to see how she used pointing. Where is dad? She pointed to her dad in the direction. Where's mother? Juli didn't reply for a few moments but grinned happily and then pointed to "you". Where is Juli? Instead of pointing to herself, she pointed to the photograph of herself on the refrigerator.

Later that same day, Juli picked up a photograph of herself and pointed to herself "me" few times as she walked around. It was not the first time. She had been pointing to herself whenever she saw a photograph of herself.

Interestingly, I had noticed that whenever she saw a photograph of herself, she pointed to herself "me". But, when it comes to her signed name. She usually would point to the photograph of herself rather than pointing to herself. Though, she later pointed to herself when seeing herself in the photographs.

Eventually, she began to use ASL possessives. Juli (age 1;3,3) used possessives as follows:

Grandma sat on the floor in the family room. She put Juli's artist cap on her head. Juli noticed and pointed at the cap. She signed mine++. She reached for the cap and took it from Grandma's head and toddled away. Then she pointed at the toys all around them and signed mine. Grandma was amused. She responded by teasing mine.

Hours later, Grandma was about to leave for home. At the doorway, as Grandma was about to give Juli a goodbye kiss, Juli pointed at Grandma's car and signed mine. Could it be that she meant it and did she teased back? If Grandma had said, "Yes, yours" instead of teasing "mine", would Juli still sign "mine" (reversal error) or "yours" in reference to Grandma's car? Grandma's tease spoiled this.

As the toddler Juli was about to turn 17 months old (age 1;5), a striking difference about pointing began to emerge.

Unlike finger pointing in a prelinguistic form of gesture, Juli began to use a very sharp pointing that was distinct. At first I noticed for a while over a month ago but didn't really think about it until I began to realize when I edited the video.

Once I became aware of it, I asked myself. Is it the form of linguistic pronoun or is it something else? As Juli was approaching the 18 month mark, sometimes I wondered how would I know when linguistic pronoun began to emerge?

At that time Juli produced "pointing" that was distinctly different from gestural pointing. I began to wonder whether it was the emergence of a linguistic form. As the gestural and pronominal pointing are in the same form, I was stumped until a surprise came -- the possessive pronouns.

One day Grandma who babysat Juli reported that Juli (age 1;5) did a good job with possessive pronouns mine and yours talking about Juli's tricycle and Grandma's car. Skeptically, I had to see for myself.

Juli (age 1;11) used deictic pointing to people somehow constantly and correctly. It wasn't clear whether Juli used pointing as a non-linguistic gesture and/or a linguistic pronoun.

A possibility was that Juli had acquired personal pronouns somehow smoothly (like the child in a study in Greek Sign Language). During that time, Juli also used names instead of pronouns; hence, reversal errors had been not detected. Somehow disappointedly, I hadn't have a chance to observe this phenomenon. But, a surprise came shortly.

Pronoun errors

The toddler Juli (age 1;11) understood the concept of possession for the previous months by pointing to some objects and identifying whose objects they belonged to. She'd point at an object (e.g. a toothbrush, a towel, a camera, a DVD disc, etc.) and uttered or asked a question whose it was -- mother('s) or father('s). If she wasn't right, I'd reply "No, it's mother's (or father's)."

In the bathroom, Juli pointed to the toothbrush and identified its possessor FATHER, then pointed to another toothbrush and uttered MOTHER, and pointed to her own toothbrush and either uttered JULI or ME,ME. During these exercises, I used possessive pronouns along with names.

Over the several days, Juli asked about whose towels are, toothbrushes are, etc., using YOUR/YOURS, HIS (dad's), MY/MINE (mother's). Bingo! Juli revealed classical reversal errors, not in personal pronouns, but in possessive pronouns! She was acquiring possessive pronouns!

In no time, she learned the role shifting. Something else interesting struck. Juli did not only produce a reversal error, though briefly, but she also quickly corrected herself by turning the palm orientation around.

For example, when I uttered yours, Juli initially produced yours but then she turned her palm orientation which pointed toward herself without contacting with her torso. This visual output allows you to peer into the cognitive process! (See video)

Now Juli had been using correct role shifts in possessive pronouns yours and mine. Juli also consistently produced a third-person possessive pronoun correctly (e.g. his/her or his/hers).

A week later, Juli (2;1,1) continued to use possessive pronouns ("hers/his", "yours", and "mine") more often with correct role shifting. Juli turned her wrist (palm orientation) to face herself for "my" or mine" for a while until it touched her chest. It was an interesting phenomenon.

One day Juli produced "yours" toward me as well as "mother's" when she noted that the object (DVD disc) was mine.

One night, Juli couldn't sleep so she decided to sit up on my lap to have a little conversation. She talked about what she saw outside -- light, home, stars. Then, she looked at her little clothes in the open closet. She uttered ix-loc clothes ix mine.

Another day, Juli took out my personal thing and inspected it. She looked at me, ix-it mother('s), ix yours.

These examples are a few of many scenarios that were clear to me that she understood the possessive pronouns.

Plural pronouns

The concept of plural pronoun emerged not long ago. The toddler Juli (age 2,2,2) used the plural pronouns more often now.

Juli understood that the toothpaste we shared belonged to both her and me. She loved the taste of a toothpaste. Often she would discreetly stole it from the bathroom countertop, rushed to her bedroom, quickly slammed the door, and comforted herself in the rocker, savoring the toothpaste.

Whenever a door was closed, it flashed a clear message. No suspense was needed. I entered her bedroom and found her. I explained that the toothpaste was not hers. She pointed out "ours".

She also used you me you me ("you and I" or "you and me") in the previous weeks. Juli seemed to use personal pronouns "you" and "I/me" in her sentences recently. It somehow became clear that Juli used linguistic pointing ("you" and "me") because reversal error appeared, even though she made perfect possessive pronouns with correct role shifts.

For example, at the end of this week, Juli asked me to sit down, sit, sit me+++. I asked in ASL translated as "You or me?" Juli quickly switched to you.

Pronouns in verbs

A fleeting moment was shocking that not only did Juli (2;0,4) inflect an ASL verb ask but also she made the correct role shift (pronoun).

What happened was that Juli grabbed my shirt and articulated milk, milk!. I explained to her that she should ask me politely for some milk -- in which the indicating verb I used was ask-me.

As I was signing to her, Juli observed and imitated some ASL productions. As I used the indicating verb ask-me in my sentences, Juli imitated ask-me, err! ask-you. It was a perfect and clear production yet at the same time a fleeting moment. She even corrected herself.


Anne Baker, Bencie Woll. Sign language acquisition. Pp 41-43.

Marianna Hatzopoulou. "The Emergence of Pronominal Pointing in Greek Sign Language."

Marianna Hatzopoulou. (2008) "Acquisition of reference to self and others in Greek Sign Language." Stockholm University. /

Dr. Laura Pettito. "On the autonomy of language and gesture: Evidence from the acquisition of personal pronouns in American Sign Language"

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