Do fish have barcodes? (and other baffling questions)

“Do fish have barcodes?” My 3-year-old had just paid his first visit to Pets At Home, and clearly Had Some Questions. If you’ve spent any time around kids – whether your own or other people’s – you’ll be all too aware of their knack of coming up with the most awkward questions (“Where do babies come from?”, “Why have I got a mouth?”) at the most awkward times (such as when you’ve been trying to leave the house for…the…last…hour).

But even on the rare occasions when kids’ questions are relatively sensible, they don’t always come out quite right. A particularly common type of mistake that pretty much all kids seem to make with questions, is getting the words in the wrong order. Picture the scene. Your little artist, pen in hand, turning to you for inspiration, asks “What I can draw?”. They meant, of course, to ask “What can I draw?”; the words just came out in the wrong order. But why?

That’s what we set out to find in our latest study, which involved combing through more than 500 hours of parent-child audio recordings looking for these mistakes (don’t worry, the recordings are transcribed and we do it on the computer!). What we found is that children make these mistakes (e.g., What I can draw?) when that particular sequence of words (what+I+can+draw) is common in the language that they hear from adults. For example, parents and grandparents often say things like “Let me show you what I can draw?”  or “Do you want to see what I can draw?”. As a result, children store the combination what+I+can+draw and dutifully trot it out when they want to ask a question of their own (“What I can draw, Mummy?”) rather than the correct version (“What can I draw, Mummy?”)

The results are interesting – at least, we think so – because they suggest that, on some level, children are storing away every single sentence that they hear. This feels quite counterintuitive – wouldn’t their little heads get full up? – but it really is the only way to explain the finding that children’s language mistakes are so sensitive to the particular sequences of words that they hear. On the more practical side, we hope that our findings might help researchers come up with better treatments for developmental language disorder (DLD). Children with DLD struggle with many aspects of language, but seem to find questions particularly difficult.

It turns out that fish do have barcodes after all: they’re just stuck to the side of the tank rather than the fish themselves. So your friendly Pets At Home cashier (other pet shop chains are available) does have something to scan (all of this was explained at great length in response to another on-the-face-of-it-baffling-but-actually-quite-sensible question, “How can we buy fish?”). So next time your little darling comes out with an awkward question, pay close attention – you might learn something that they’ve picked up about your own speech patterns. One thing is clear (and, frankly, quite terrifying): They’re recording everything that you say.

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