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257 I’m Learneding! First Language Acquisition in The Simpsons Kristy Beers Fägersten On December 31, 1999, Time magazine published its list of the best TV shows of the twentieth century. The Simpsons, winner of twenty-eight Emmys and thirty Annies, was number one. It is the longest-running show in the categories of situation comedy, animation, and prime-time scripted series, with 550 episodes and counting. The Simpson family even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a distinction they share with just three other fictional TV characters: The Muppets’ Kermit and Big Bird, and the Rugrats (1990–2006) ensemble. Of course, most of the shows discussed in this book are hugely successful multiple award winners, but what really sets The Simpsons apart is the fact that it is loved by adults, teenagers, and young children alike. At least part of this universal appeal probably lies in the fact that the series’ main characters include both adults and children. Homer Simpson is a bumbling, thirty-six-year-old father and employee at a nuclear power plant; Marge Simpson is a caring, raspy-voiced, thirty-four-yearold mother who stays at home but has dabbled in various jobs; Bart Simpson is the mischievous, delinquent, and underachieving ten-year-old son; eight-year-old Lisa Simpson is the family’s intellectual and cultural black I would like to thank Ben Ambridge, reader in psychological sciences at Liverpool University, for his contribution to this chapter and guidance in identifying and explaining key terms and concepts of first language acquisition. Any errors or misrepresentations in this chapter are solely my own. 258 | Kristy Beers Fägersten sheep; and one-year-old Maggie Simpson is known for sucking on her pacifier and being aware of more than she is given credit for. The series is also populated by a myriad of more than two hundred recurring and two thousand guest characters of all ages, including children, adolescents, young and middle-aged adults, and senior citizens. This considerable ensemble is yet another explanation for the universal appeal of the series, in that the various cast members can deliver clever commentary on social and political issues, thereby attracting adult viewers but not affecting the narrative to the extent that younger viewers are alienated. In this chapter, we will use The Simpsons to consider examples of child language in order to explore the field of first language acquisition. However, not all examples of language produced by children illustrate child language. The character of Lisa, for instance, is known for her precocious nature, and her use of language suggests intelligence and linguistic proficiency beyond her eight years; her speech is not representative of language typical for an eight-year-old child. On the other hand, Ralph Wiggum, also eight years old, is portrayed as more age-appropriately immature, and perhaps even a bit dim-witted. He is a more typical example of a child character with a childlike mastery of language. The contrast between these two young characters is evident at the start of the episode “Lisa’s Rival.”1 In a schoolroom scene, Lisa and her classmates are taking an exam; Ralph Wiggum is seated in the desk next to Lisa. As the teacher announces that time is running out, Ralph turns to Lisa for help. Example 1: Teacher: 45 seconds ’til pencils down. Ralph: (whispering) Lisa, what’s the answer to number seven? Lisa: (whispering) Sorry Ralph. That would defeat the purpose of testing as a means of student evaluation. Ralph: My cat’s name is Mittens. This example effectively represents the two eight-year-old characters’ contrasting levels of intellect and maturity via linguistic means. While 1. Written by Mike Skully. I'm Learneding! | 259 Lisa’s turn suggests knowledge, testing ability, integrity, and intellect, Ralph’s two turns indicate true childlike ignorance, helplessness, and confusion in the face of mentally demanding tasks, such as taking a test or trying to understand difficult words. In example 1, both of Ralph’s turns are linguistically well formed. Throughout the chapter, however, we will consider additional examples of language produced by Ralph, whose mistakes are characteristic of child language development, and thus can help us to understand the process of first language acquisition. It should be noted, however, that our use of the phrase ‘child language’ does not always correspond to language produced by children. Just as we have seen that eight-year-old Lisa’s language use is not childlike, we will also...


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