(Preface: I'm not well-versed in language acquisition, so the context I've provided here will be dumbed-down, or perhaps just dumb.)

Context: When children acquire their first language, they typically go through a phase where they take grammatical rules (e.g. "form past tense by adding -ed to a verb") and apply them in situations where they aren't applicable (e.g. using *goed as the past tense of go). This is called overgeneralization. Children acquiring English as a first language overgeneralize verb conjugations all over the place - "I ated the candy", "She telled me to do it", etc.

Since Japanese has fewer irregular conjugations than English, I expect overgeneralization (in the context of conjugation) to be less visible, but I doubt that it is absent altogether. I have, for example, heard *iikunai as the overgeneralized negative of ii "good" in place of yokunai. (Albeit this was a child character in an anime, not a real child, so this may not be representative.)

Question: Do children make similar errors with irregular verbs and other conjugatable words? For example, might they use *shiru as the 終止形 of suru "to do" or *kinai as the negative of kuru "to come"? What about with irregular honorifics like irassharu, gozaru? (I guess children wouldn't use these as much, since keigo is mastered relatively late...)

I would also be interested in cases where children incorrectly treat non-conjugatable words as conjugatable, e.g. (to use some examples from the comments), *ippakunai as the negative of ippai "a lot; much" or *kireikunai as the negative of kirei "pretty".

  • I usually ignore all the papers about child acquisition, but IIRC a lot of overgeneralizations in child Japanese have to do with particles, that is, overgeneralizing syntax rather than morphology. I think I've seen mention of overgeneralizing に and の.
    – user1478
    Jun 15, 2014 at 2:47
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    – user1016
    Jun 15, 2014 at 8:20
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    @Choko -- interesting. My wife as a learner sometimes still says きれいくない, perhaps suggesting that at least some of these overgeneralization patterns extend beyond just child learners. I'd be interested in studies comparing child vs adult learners and such patterns. Jun 15, 2014 at 21:58
  • 5
    – user1016
    Jun 17, 2014 at 7:34
  • 3
    – user1016
    Jun 17, 2014 at 7:38

4 Answers 4


There are a lot of ways that these over-generalizations occur doing child language acquisition. They do in fact occur -- often -- in Japanese. In fact, I think it is safe to say that they occur in every language.

There's a rather in depth list of examples of some of these over-generalizations available in the papers referenced below. I will describe one example here: the over-generalization of ~らせて (e.g. as seen in 遅【おく】らせて) and ~させて (e.g. 食べさせて). Thus many children will say things like:

おきらせて and おきさせて (=おこして).

Even earlier than that, Japanese children will often simply use 自動詞 to express the meaning of a 他動詞, as seen in:


There are many more papers and likely books written on this subject, but any Japanese-language introductory book on language acquisition should have a bunch more examples.



I think this is not really overgeneralization, but when I was in Tokyo I've heard quite a few little kids use 連用形+して instead of 連用形+音便+て to form て-form (i.e. 飲みして, 待ちして), likely to avoid the messy 音便 rules. I guess this is some sort of new form that spread among kids.

Edit: After recalling a bit, it seems that this "error" comes up the most often with 〜てみる. So kids would say ちょっと待って, but 飲みしてみて.

  • Never heard kids in Tokyo (or anywhere) say 飲みして or 待ちして.
    – user4032
    Jun 19, 2014 at 0:09
  • Did you maybe hear 飲まして ("let me drink") instead? I've never heard 飲みして either.
    – Earthliŋ
    Jul 6, 2014 at 18:22
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    TBH it was a few tiny kids running around in a group in 未来館 with grammar that is very peculiar in other parts (I swear some of them generalize 〜い to 〜かる for adjectives!), so maybe it is some weird constructed dialect these particular kids use for fun. Probably they'll end up growing up into conlangers like JRR Tolkien :P
    – ithisa
    Jul 7, 2014 at 12:32

The kinds of mistakes that children make depend on how often they hear the correct speech around them. From my experience, Japanese children make fewer mistakes in conjugating verbs than in using particles properly. I've heard adult women use "kireiku nai" deliberately for the same of emphasizing their point. My first Japanese teacher used to say that you spend your first year of Japanese study learning all of the rules, and then the rest of your life learning when to break them. I've also heard adults say yon-nichi instead of yoka to differentiate between four days and eight days.


I expect children in all cultures go through a trial and error period of well intended but amusing errors as their ability to speak develops.

This paper looks at the development of Japanese children's narrative abilities, comparing the narrative given for a series of pictures by several age groups up to adult.

(Short version:http://csjarchive.cogsci.rpi.edu/proceedings/2006/iccs/p119.pdf)

It does not identify errors so much as track how a child's ability to relate a story changes as he/she gets older. Basically as a child begins to appreciate aspect and tense he/she starts to set all narratives in the past (たーform). Then, as this sense develops, the child starts to introduce expressions in the るーpresent tense aswell.

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