Changes in the L1 Nominal System of Russian-English Bilingual Child

This study explores the changes in the nominal morphology of the native language (L1, Russian) of a young child placed in the second language (L2, English) environment. The analysis of innovations occurring in the child’s speech in language contact situation made it possible to determine what aspects of the L1 grammar are most susceptible to changes and to study the language mechanisms responsible for the production of innovations.

The study in based on daily notes, monthly tape-recordings as well as occasional elicitations activities designed to test the child’s competence in L1. Seven hundred speech samples were analyzed. The subject of the study, Fedja, was placed in the L2 environment in 1994, at the age of four. Tape recordings of that period demonstrate that his first and primary language was fluent, grammatically and semantically fully developed for his age as discussed in Gvozdev (1961), Popova (1958), Zaxarova (1958). His initial infrequent exposure to English significantly increased when the child started going to school in an English-speaking environment at the age of four years eleven months. Though Russian continues to be used at home and with a few Russian-speaking adults and children, the exposure to L1 can be described as limited. At present the child’s speech is characterized by an abundance of deviant forms in all major word classes.

This study finds that there are several reasons responsible for deviations from the standard language in the child’s speech. First, deviations are caused by the complexity of the Russian language; that is, the morphological system of Russian with its variety of affixes and complex systems of nominal declension and verbal conjugation affects the selection and use of inflectional and derivational affixes with different parts of speech, causing errors in grammatical forms from the point of view of the standard language.

Complexity related to the second reason for deviations in the child’s speech, variation of grammatical forms. Whenever there are several forms expressing the same meaning, the child prefers to use a single form disregarding various constraints on its usage. His choice is usually the least marked form or pattern. Third, certain deviations may be explained by general strategies that are typical for children’s language acquisition. These include preference for overt morphemes to zero morphemes, the selection of phonologically unique inflections, and the avoidance of exceptional grammatical forms (Slobin 1973). Linguistic creativity, another feature of children’s language acquisition, may also play a role in production of deviant forms. Children are known to experiment with language combining stems and affixes available to them to create novel words, irregular in form, the meaning of which is understandable to native speakers (Clark 1982).

A large group of errors may be attributed to overgeneralization. The child in the study simplifies the rules of the language by eliminating marked features or irregular patterns in favor of the unmarked, general or regular patterns. He tries to avoid paradigmatic ambiguities and to maintain “one form-one meaning” correspondence so that a grammatical form has only one meaning. The child’s forms seem to be more regularized because he primarily uses suffixation to form innovations, whereas the standard language employs such processes as consonant mutation, stem extension and truncation, stress shift and suppletion along with affixation.

The main mechanism responsible for producing innovations in the child’s speech is analogy, which makes morphologically, syntactically and/or semantically related forms more similar to each other in their phonetic and morphological structure. The child chooses a word or a pattern of form- or word-formation that exists in the standard language as a model for analogy.

This study’s findings suggest that deviations occur primarily when there is a variation of grammatical forms. Certain phenomena that occur in attrition, e.g., overgeneralization and avoidance of suppletive forms resemble developmental forms typical of earlier stages of acquisition which makes it possible to assume that the child’s language system is regressing to an earlier stage of development.

It is hoped that the findings of this study are indicative of a general pattern and can provide further insights into the development of the language in a language contact situation and highlight the aspects of the L1 grammar that are most permeable to attrition.


Clark, Eve V. 1982. “The Young Word Maker: A Case Study in Innovation in the Child Lexicon.” In E. Wanner and L. Gleitman (eds.) Language Acquisition: The State of the Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 390–428.

Ferguson, Charles A. and Dan Isaak Slobin (eds.) 1973. Studies of Child Language Development. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, Inc.

Gvozdev, A. N. 1961. Voprosy izučenija detskoj reči. Moscow: Akademija pedagogičeskix nauk.

Popova, M. I. 1958. “Grammatičeskije elementy jazyka v reči detej preddoškol′nogo vozrasta.” Voprosy psixologii 4 (3). Translated and edited as “Grammtical Elements of Language in the Speech of Pre-School Children” in Ferguson and Slobin, 269–280.

Slobin, Dan Isaak. 1973. “Cognitive prerequisites for the development of grammar.” In Ferguson and Slobin, 175–208.

Zaxarova, A. V. 1958. “Usvoenie doškol′nikami padežnyx form.” Doklady akademii pedagogičeskix nauk RSFSR 2(3): 81–84. Translated and edited as “Acquisition of Forms of Grammatical Case by Preschool Children” in Ferguson and Slobin, 281–284.