“Shut the door,” “Sit down,” “Go to sleep.” We write them as multiple words, but do young children view them that way? How do we know if a child has learned a “chunk” versus really putting together a multi-word utterance?
It can be tempting to say that once a child can imitate a longer phrase like this, he’s really using multi-word sentences, but we have to dig a little deeper to determine whether he’s learned this chunk through repetition or if he’s fully understanding it and using it himself. How can we tell? Does he use each piece of that sentence, each word, individually in other contexts/combinations? For example, if a child says, “Shut the door,” we can assume he’s really putting those words together independently if…
He uses “shut” in other contexts (shut the box, shut the garbage can, push it shut, etc.)
He uses “door” in other contexts and combinations (big door, push the door, blue door, etc.)
Basically, we have to break the sentence apart and see if the child can use each piece at different times and in different ways.
So does this mean repeated phrases are totally worthless? Not at all! Even if the child hears it as “shutthedoor” or “sitdown” or “gotosleep,” learning to repeat longer adult utterances is a big step. It shows growth in auditory memory (the ability to hear words and hold them in your head and then use them), ability to imitate duration, intensity, and pitch, and match of words to actions (if the child hears “shut the door” and knows what to do, he’s made a link!). These are great steps, it’s just important to see them for what they are, and not confuse them with what they’re not.