Language Acquisition: Morning Now and Other Weird Collocations
My son is approaching 3 years of age and he is developing both his English and Portugese at an amazing rate. His language, though, sounds very strange, some people call it cute, and this is partly because he is being exposed to two languages at the same time and partly because he is still only 2 and this is a natural part of first lanaguage(s) acquisition.
One example that he constantly uses is to say ‘Morning now.’ He originally learnt this at his grandmother’s house in the UK because when the sun came up it meant he no longer had to stay in his own bed but could creep into his nana’s bed and maybe get to watch Fireman Sam on her TV. He would open the door to her room and say ‘Nana, morning now,’ just in case she wasn’t aware that the sun had come up.
This phrase, though, has proven so useful that he now misuses it, or at least the teacher in me thinks he misuses it. He will use it instead of ‘good morning’, or he will say it whenever he wants to watch TV and the sun is still up. He will be sitting in the car at 4pm and suddenly tell us that it is ‘morning now’, or at night he’ll say it’s ‘no morning now’.
As a language teacher we often find that our jobs interfere with our normal lives. We can’t watch a film or listen to a song without thinking how it could be used in class. And so it is with me and my son. I am constantly paying attention to the language he is using and formulating theories as to what is going on his mind. During my MA in Linguistics I had a professor who claimed linguists made the worst parents because we pay more attention to the language our children use than to what they actually say. I’m not that bad, but still…
Anyway, I have a number of theories as to why my son constantly says ‘Morning now’ and other weird phrases such as ‘rainy day’ whenever there is the slightest bit if rain in the air and ‘yellow submarine’ whenever he sees a something yellow. The main theory I have is associated with collocation.
A collocation is two words or more that occur together more often than you would expect purely on the basis of chance. The example I use with my students is that you normally ‘open a bank account’ and not ‘create a bank account’ simply because people who speak English like to put ‘open’ together with ‘a bank account’. If you walked into a bank and said ‘I’d like to create a bank account, please,’ you would probably get what you wanted, but it would seem unnatural to the listener.
So what has this got to do with ‘morning now’? My main theory about why my son has latched on to this collocation is that he heard it a couple of times, used it and got positive feedback, i.e. his nana let him watch TV in bed. His brain has decided that these two words go together and so he says it all the time. I am not worried about this because we have years of exposure to English ahead of us for him to realise that this isn’t the only way to use the words ‘morning’ and ‘now’.
I think this has interesting implications for adult learners. Adults don’t usually have the time to be exposed to language in the same way as young children do, so they need us as teachers to shortcut the whole process and highlight useful collocations as and when they come across them. We need to go further than this, though, and also give opportunities for students to use the collocations and offer positive feedback when an appropriate collocation has been used.
Sometimes a student might use a collocation that isn’t really natural. This could be because of first language interference or because they have seen encountered one example of a collocation and assumed that it is more commonly used that is the actual fact. Without negative feedback (correction) from a teacher this collocation could become fossilised and students their own equivalents of ‘Morning now!’