Field of Science

Why girls say "holded" but boys say "held"

The most remarkable aspect of the human language faculty is that children learn so quickly and with such ease. Prior to school, they are already learning new words at the rate of one every two hours, counting the hours that they are asleep. Not only does this happen without intense schooling -- the method by which we learn most difficult skills -- but explicit instruction seems to be useless. Here is a conversation between a small child and father, reproduced in The Language Instinct:

Child: Want other one spoon, Daddy.
Father: You mean, you want THE OTHER SPOON.
Child: Yes, I want other one spoon, please, Daddy.
Father: Can you say "the other spoon"?
Child: Other . . . one . . . spoon.
Father: Say ... "other."
Child: Other.
Father: "Spoon."
Child: Spoon.
Father: "Other ... Spoon."
Child: Other ... spoon. Now give me other one spoon?

All that said, language learning still takes the little geniuses a few years, and along the way they make mistakes. Mistakes are interesting because they provide a window into how and what the child is learning. One of the most interesting and probably best-studied mistakes is grammatical over-regularizations of the sort "I holded the mouses" or "I runned with the wolfes." Notice that the child has probably never heard anybody say "holded" or "mouses," so this proves children aren't simply repeating what they've heard. Here, the child has taken irregular verbs (held, ran) and nouns (mice, wolves) and made them regular. The standard explanation for this -- though not the only one -- is that over-regularization occurs because we have a default rule to add the regular affix (walk+ed, dog+s) unless we have memorized an irregular form. If the child has not yet learned the irregular form or momentarily forgets it, an over-regularization results.

A few years ago, I was working with Michael Ullman at Georgetown University on a project investigating possible differences in how men and women perform particular linguistic computations. The bigger project continues, and if I get enough requests, I may eventually post something about it. The basic idea was that a number of studies have suggested that women perform better on declarative memory tasks than men do. Since Dr. Ullman's model of language processing ascribes certain processes to declarative memory (to be exact, "declarative memory-related brain structures) and others to procedural memory (careful: different researchers use this word to mean different things), that predicted differences between how men and women would perform certain linguistic functions. This was a way of testing Ullman's model and also perhaps learn something that could be useful in medical treatments of patients with language problems.

One day, it occured to me to explore childhood over-regularization. If women/girls have better memory for words, then they should have better memory for irregular forms and make fewer over-regularizations. We tested this and found a very surprising result: girls were actually three times more likely to over-regularize than boys.

This had us stumped for a while, but we eventually found an explanation. The "other model" mentioned above argues that over-regularization happens not through over-applying a grammatical rule but by analogy to regular forms (the difference is subtle, but it has big implications for how our minds and brains work -- for that reason this was one of the hot controversies throughout the 80s and 90s). Ullman's and similar models had always argued this was impossible because regular forms (walked, houses) are (mostly) not stored in memory. However, our ongoing research had suggested that women in fact do store a reasonable number of regular forms in memory after all, presumably because of superior declarative memory function. When we investigated the over-regularization data more carefully, we found evidence that the girls' over-regularizations -- but not the boys' -- were indeed a result of analogical reasoning, not rule-use. For whatever reason -- this is still not well understood -- the over-regularization-by-analogy process led to more "holded"s than the over-regularization-by-rule process.

And that is why girls say "holded" while boys say "held". You can read the journal article here.

I have been thinking about running a related experiment at my Web-based lab some day in the future. In the meantime, I've been investigating other topics (please participate by clicking here).

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