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10 Language Mistakes Kids Make That Are Actually Pretty Smart

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Little kids make such cute mistakes when they talk. We know they're still learning the language, so we tolerate their errors and chuckle at how funny they sound. Behind that chuckle is the assumption that the kids are getting it wrong because they just don't know the rules yet. In fact, kids' mistakes show they know a lot more about the rules than we think. The mistakes are evidence of very smart hypotheses the kids are forming from the limited data they've been given so far. Here are 10 really smart language mistakes that kids make.

1. "Dop it!" instead of "stop it!"

It's not easy to start a word with a consonant cluster. Kids don't have the fine motor control they need to produce the 'st' in stop, but they don't just leave it out. They substitute a sound they can produce. 'D' is a very smart substitution for 'st' in "stop." If you take a careful look at the acoustics of 't' in adult versions of "stop" vs. "top," you see that the 't's in those words look different from each other. The vocal cords kick in sooner for the 't' in "stop." A 'd' is basically a 't' where the vocal cords kick in sooner, so when children substitute that sound, they show they've heard the difference between "stop" and "top" and hypothesized that it's important for the language. And they are right!

2. Calls the dog "baby."

When children start using words, they haven't figured out all the situations in which they apply. They form hypotheses about word meaning and apply them on their own. The child might call all the kids and pets in the family "baby," but not the parents, revealing a hypothesis that "baby" means "family member who other people have to get food for." She may call everyone she meets "baby," extending the hypothesis to "living creatures." Like any good scientist, she can only confirm her hypothesis by testing it. Eventually, she will get enough data to settle on the right one.

3. Points to something and says "thank you" when he wants it.

This mistake shows complex knowledge of pragmatics, or the meaning of words in contexts. He knows that "thank you" is not the name of a thing in the world, but is rather something we say in a specific context. "Thank you" occurs in the context of a transfer of possession. He's saying, "Let's do that thing where 'thank you' gets said." Very clever way to try to bring about a transfer of possession!

4. "Baby drink. Milk all-gone!"

At about 18 months, children start putting two words together in phrases. But these phrases aren't just words haphazardly thrown in next to each other—they are mini sentences that express the relationships that full sentences do. "Baby drink" refers to the relation "actor performs an action." The words come in the same order they would in a grammatical sentence: subject verb. "Milk all-gone" expresses "object has some quality," and those words also come in the correct order: noun (is) adjective. The child has figured out that word order matters a lot in English for making those relations clear.

5. "I goed fast!"

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Most children go through a phase where they treat irregular verbs like they are regular. The interesting thing is that they do this after they have already learned the irregular versions. They may say "went fast" for a while, when "went" is just a word they've heard a few times. Later they notice the larger pattern—words take –ed in the past tense. Only when they've noticed that pattern, do they start making these overregularization errors. "I goed fast" is a sign that the child is not just saying words, but figuring out the larger important patterns that relate words to each other.

6. "I can't will go today."

Auxiliary verbs are hard! Can, will, do, would, should, might—there are so many little words that change the meaning of a clause. They pile up on top of each other, sometimes contracting into smaller versions, and who knows what order you're supposed to put them in? When kids pile these up, even if they don't do it correctly, they are making an amazing attempt to fit a lot of meanings together in one clause. "I can't will go today" includes information about permission status (can), negation (n't), and future tense (will) in one sentence. Trying these kinds of constructions out is a major step toward serious grammatical complexity.

7. "Ha ha. I won you."

This is not a bad guess. English has tons of verbs that can be intransitive (I watched, I pushed, I drew) or transitive (I watched you; I pushed you; I drew you.) Typically, situations where one person takes an action that affects another person will have a transitive verb associated with them. For a competitive kid of a certain age, what situation could be more stereotypically "one person affecting another" than when somebody wins?

8. "What are you eating it?"

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Questions are complicated. When you ask a question like "what are you eating," you have a situation—"you are eating it"—that you want to know something about—"you are eating what?" The child has to figure out that to ask this question in English you have to move the object of inquiry, the "what," to the beginning of the sentence, and then switch the places of "you" and "are." In "what are you eating it?" the child has correctly switched "you" and "are" and moved the "what" to the beginning. But perhaps she then felt this movement left an empty space where there shouldn't be one, and so she sticks the "it" in to fill the hole. She is making extra sure the sentence is complete.

9. "Mommy, you're a grown up. I'm a grown down."

This shows that not only has the child learned that "up" is the opposite of "down," but that that sense of oppositeness can be applied to the relationship between "adult" and "kid" in a meaningful way. Just the kind of analogy-making that came in handy when learning the difference between "good guy" and "bad guy" or "backyard" and "front yard."

10. "Unless I will get a lollipop, if I won't will get dressed fast."

So much going on here. Clausal connectors like "unless" and "if" are some of the last words that children master. In fact, when used in tests of logical reasoning, many adults have problems with them too. The child here is combining two statements: 1. Unless I get a lollipop, I won't get dressed fast. 2. I will get a lollipop if I get dressed fast. He stipulates his conditions for getting dressed fast and lays out the anticipated consequences of his getting dressed fast all in one extremely complex blend. Before we can say he's mastered English, he needs to simplify this construction down to a level that even adults can understand.

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Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?
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English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent “e” in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that “eight” rhymes with “ate,” “of” rhymes with “love,” and “to” sounds like “too” sounds like “two.” If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons—stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.

But sometimes English takes it a step too far, does something so brazen and shameless we can’t just let it slide. That’s when we have to throw our shoulders back, put our hands on our hips and ask, point blank, what is the deal with the word “colonel”?

“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

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Beyond “Buffalo buffalo”: 9 Other Repetitive Sentences From Around The World
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Famously, in English, it’s possible to form a perfectly grammatical sentence by repeating the word buffalo (and every so often the place name Buffalo) a total of eight times: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo essentially means “buffalo from Buffalo, New York, who intimidate other buffalo from Buffalo, New York, are themselves intimidated by buffalo from Buffalo, New York.” But repetitive or so-called antanaclastic sentences and tongue twisters like these are by no means unique to English—here are a few in other languages that you might want to try.


This sentence works less well in print than Buffalo buffalo, of course, but it’s all but impenetrable when read aloud. In French, le ver vert va vers le verre vert means “the green worm goes towards the green glass,” but the words ver (worm), vert (green), vers (towards), and verre (glass) are all homophones pronounced “vair,” with a vowel similar to the E in “bet” or “pet.” In fact, work the French heraldic word for squirrel fur, vair, in there somewhere and you’d have five completely different interpretations of the same sound to deal with.


Eo can be interpreted as a verb (“I go”), an adverb ("there," "for that reason"), and an ablative pronoun (“with him” or “by him”) in Latin, each with an array of different shades of meaning. Put four of them in a row in the context cum eo eo eo eo quod eum amo, and you’ll have a sentence meaning “I am going there with him because I love him.”


An even more confusing Latin sentence is malo malo malo malo. On its own, malo can be a verb (meaning “I prefer,” or “I would rather”); an ablative form of the Latin word for an apple tree, malus (meaning “in an apple tree”); and two entirely different forms (essentially meaning “a bad man,” and “in trouble” or “in adversity”) of the adjective malus, meaning evil or wicked. Although the lengths of the vowels differ slightly when read aloud, put all that together and malo malo malo malo could be interpreted as “I would rather be in an apple tree than a wicked man in adversity.” (Given that the noun malus can also be used to mean “the mast of a ship,” however, this sentence could just as easily be interpreted as, “I would rather be a wicked man in an apple tree than a ship’s mast.”)


Far (pronounced “fah”) is the Danish word for father, while får (pronounced like “for”) can be used both as a noun meaning "sheep" and as a form of the Danish verb , meaning "to have." Far får får får? ultimately means “father, do sheep have sheep?”—to which the reply could come, får får ikke får, får får lam, meaning “sheep do not have sheep, sheep have lambs.”


Manx is the Celtic-origin language of the Isle of Man, which has close ties to Irish. In Manx, ee is both a pronoun (“she” or “it”) and a verb (“to eat”), a future tense form of which is eeee (“will eat”). Eight letter Es in a row ultimately can be divided up to mean “she will eat it.”


Como can be a preposition (“like,” “such as”), an adverb (“as,” “how”), a conjunction (“as”), and a verb (a form of comer, “to eat”) in Spanish, which makes it possible to string together dialogues like this: Como como? Como como como como! Which means “How do I eat? I eat like I eat!”

7. “Á Á A Á Á Á Á.” // ICELANDIC

Á is the Icelandic word for river; a form of the Icelandic word for ewe, ær; a preposition essentially meaning “on” or “in;” and a derivative of the Icelandic verb eiga, meaning “to have,” or “to possess.” Should a person named River be standing beside a river and simultaneously own a sheep standing in or at the same river, then that situation could theoretically be described using the sentence Á á á á á á á in Icelandic.


Thai is a tonal language that uses five different tones or patterns of pronunciation (rising, falling, high, low, and mid or flat) to differentiate between the meanings of otherwise seemingly identical syllables and words: glai, for instance, can mean both “near” and “far” in Thai, just depending on what tone pattern it’s given. Likewise, the Thai equivalent of the sentence “new wood doesn’t burn, does it?” is mai mai mai mai mai—which might seem identical written down, but each syllable would be given a different tone when read aloud.


Mandarin Chinese is another tonal language, the nuances of which were taken to an extreme level by Yuen Ren Chao, a Chinese-born American linguist and writer renowned for composing a bizarre poem entitled "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den." When written in its original Classical Chinese script, the poem appears as a string of different characters. But when transliterated into the Roman alphabet, every one of those characters is nothing more than the syllable shi:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

The only difference between each syllable is its intonation, which can be either flat (shī), rising (shí), falling (shì) or falling and rising (shǐ); you can hear the entire poem being read aloud here, along with its English translation.


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