Pattern detection and language errors

One thing I’ve been thinking about as T learns new words is how our brains are wired to detect patterns and how useful that is for learning language.

Human brains are AMAZING at detecting patterns – and, thinking about and watching T learn new words, it’s so clear to me how important pattern detection is. For example, T has primarily learned the word “horse” (he doesn’t say it yet, but will make a clip-clopping noise when he sees one in a book) by looking at pictures of horses in books and playing with a toy horse that we have at home. But, all of these horses are different – some are realistic photos, some are cartoonish and colored unrealistic colors, some are more realistic cartoon drawings, etc. So, T has learned to generalize across all these different instances of horses to learn some pattern like “a horse is an object with four legs, a longish neck, and a mane, and it makes a clip-clopping noise.” Thinking about this is kind of amazing to me!

But, sometimes it’s possible to learn a pattern incorrectly – for example, by learning a pattern that is a bit too broad. An example of this might be if T had learned the pattern “a horse is an object with 4 legs and is sometimes brown” – this pattern might lead him to identify a picture of a cow as a horse (which sometimes happens with one particular cow in a book that we have :)).

T frequently makes pattern errors that both amuse and interest me. One of the more humorous ones involves his identification of pictures of my father (T’s grandfather, whom we call “thatha” – “grandfather” in Tamil). My father wears transition-lenses glasses (so they frequently look like sunglasses, even inside). T recently saw a picture of Ray Charles and insistently pointed at the photo yelling “Thatha! Thatha!” I guess T’s “pattern” for his grandfather is an older man who wears sunglasses!

One of the things about T’s errors that interests me is which words he tends to make more “errors” with. I think that he tends to “correctly” use nouns much more than non-nouns, and thinking about this in terms of pattern detection, I think this makes sense. I think that the “pattern” for most nouns is generally easier to deduce than for non-nouns. For example, “ball” is a fairly concrete clear concept, compared to, for example, “up” and “down.” “Up” and “down” are used in so many different contexts – lifting T up and down, picking something up off the floor, going up and down steps, etc, whereas “ball” is basically a round toy (although T will sometimes call fruit like melons balls!).

And, I think that T tends to have more interesting interpretations (and by this, I mean broad!) for when words like “all done” and “bye bye” should be used. Perhaps this is because he’s still trying to learn the “pattern” for these words!

So many new words

T’s language seems to have grown quite a lot in the last week! Just in the past week, he’s started saying approximations of “eyes,” “nose,” “mouth,” “up,” “down,” “ball,” “bump,” and “go.” Of course, his version of these words is often not quite right – he’ll usually get the first consonant right and get close to right vowel after, and leaves off the final consonant. But, it’s clear to me what he’s trying to say (for example, if he’s stabbing me in the eye shouting “AYYYY!”). I made a page here documenting all of T’s words that I hope to update over time!

What’s interesting to me is that T’s “favorite” babbling consonant is definitely “d” – it’s predominantly what he uses when he’s just babbling to himself in the stroller (vocal play), or trying to say stuff to us that isn’t understandable as a clear word to us. But, despite “d” being T’s clear favorite consonant, he actually has more words that are “b” words.

I made a little graph of how the current set of T’s words are distributed in terms of predominant sound type – for example, whether the primary consonant is bilabial (formed with the lips pressed together – like for “b” or “m”), whether the primary consonant is alveolar (with the tongue pressed at the roof of the mouth – like for “d” or “n”), or whether the word (at least as T says it) is mostly vowels. Here’s the chart:

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So, as of right now, a higher proportion of T’s words most prominently feature bilabial consonants, although that’s closely followed by alveolar consonants. I’m not sure if T has just been most interested in words that start with “b” (like “bubbles” or “ball”) or if these might be easier for him to learn, since bilabial consonants are very visually salient (it’s easy to see someone’s lips pressed together compared to where their tongue is inside their mouth), and that’s something that we visually emphasize when we say words we’re trying to teach him.

I’ll be interested to see how this pattern changes over time!


T (13 months) has been playing around with lots of different vowel sounds lately. For awhile, it seemed like he was mostly saying “ahhh” and “aaa,” but lately, he has added “ee,” “ayy,” “oh,” and “uh.” Some cute highlights – he’s started saying “uh oh” – usually while looking us in the eye, grinning, and throwing food/utensils off his high chair and pointing for us to pick them up (I don’t think that’s exactly an “uh oh”?!). And, out of the blue, he’s started singing “E I E I O”! I THINK this is because of the song “Old McDonald,” but I don’t usually sing this to him, so I’m not totally sure where he learned this (daycare?!). He’s also started very reliably saying “ohhh” to get us to open a box, which is something we’ve worked hard on with speech therapy, and it finally clicked this week!

I’ve noticed that, with all of these new vowels, T tends to say the vowel in isolation, rarely combining it with a consonant (when T says consonants, they tend to be combined with his earlier mastered vowels, like “aaa” and “ahh” – so he will say “ba,” “da,” etc.). But, after a few days of experimenting with his new vowels, I’ve noticed that T has just now started combining them with consonants – and, interestingly, he seems to mostly be combining them with “d.” So, he will babble “doh,” “duh,” and “die” now. I wrote here about how I thought T’s favorite consonant was “d” (based on when he first said it and how frequently he says it), so I wonder if he’s starting to combine his new vowels with “d” because it’s his favorite and/or the easiest for him to say? If that’s the case, I predict that we will next start to hear “bye” and “no!”

T has also started to pick up a few new words that he will say pretty reliably – he will say “buh buh” while waving goodbye, and just in the past two days, has started saying “all done” (pronounced “ah duh”). He has started saying “mama” quite a bit, as well, but I think I might have inadvertently taught him that the word for photograph is “mama” – I may have been a bit overzealous pointing out myself in photographs, and I’ve noticed that T will now excitedly point to ANY photograph, regardless of whether I’m in it, and shout “mama”!