People often think that using like as a discourse marker is typical of teenage talk. Christopher V. Odato’s research, though, finds that children as young as 4 use like in this way.
Odato recorded children playing together, choosing one pair of girls and one pair of boys in seven age groups – 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10. He identified three stages in their use of like as a discourse marker. At first (stage 1), children use like infrequently and in only a few syntactic positions – mainly in front of a determiner phrase (beginning with a word like a or the, as in she had like a part right here) or at the beginning of a clause (like you deserve to get a spanking). As their language matures, they reach stage 2. At this point they use like more often and in a greater number of positions, though still more often before a determiner phrase. By stage 3 their overall frequency of like has continued to increase and they now use it more frequently in other positions, such as before a prepositional phrase (look at how mine landed like in the crack of the chair).
Although boys and girls follow similar developmental trajectories, Odato found that girls become more sophisticated users of like at an earlier age than boys. All the girls in the 4-6 year old pairs used like, but only half the boys of the same age used it; and those boys who did use like did so infrequently. The girls moved from stage 1 to stage 2 at about the age of 5, but the boys did not move on to stage 2 until they were 7. Girls showed a dramatic increase in their use of like between the ages of 4 and 6, but for boys a comparable increase in frequency was not seen until the ages of 7 and 8. Finally, boys aged 7 and 8 were still preferring to use like before a determiner phrase, whereas the girls were using it less often in this position and more often in a range of other positions.
Odato points out that research on other discourse markers has also found that 4-7 year old girls use these forms more frequently and with more global pragmatic functions than boys of the same age. It’s been suggested that this is related to gender differences in play: boys tend to prefer active games that do not require so much speech whereas girls more often plot and act out pretend play situations.
Intriguingly, the different syntactic positions in which children use like as their ages increase follow approximately the same order as the historical development of like as a discourse marker in English. Odato points out, though, that the frequency with which adults use like also coincides with the history of the form. Children probably wait to hear enough evidence that like can be used in a certain syntactic position before they start to use it that way themselves, and obviously this will take longer for the less frequent positions. However what we know about adults’ use of like is based on adults talking to adults, and we can’t assume that this is how adults use like when they are speaking to children. As so often, more research is needed!
Odato, Christopher V. (2013) The development of children’s use of discourse like in peer interaction. American Speech 88(2): 117-143.