Saturday, March 22, 2014

Two views of addition, two weeks apart

Now that I'm watching my kids learn skills like addition and reading which go above and beyond the obvious natural language acquisition, it's still amazing to watch the process of acquisition, and to see how suddenly things click so that what seemed impossible becomes totally natural in a matter of just weeks.

Since a colleague of mine who used to be an elementary school teacher mentioned to me that "counting on" was something that took kids a while to get, I've been paying attention. Sure enough, though Grace can happily count numbers and add them, she's spent quite a long time doing addition by putting two groups together and then counting all the items, rather than simply starting counting from one set and then up to the other. It's kind of fascinating how stubborn she is in this, and how much math she can seem to know when she still can't get the basic idea that if you have five things and you add four you only have to count up four from five.

Anyway, here's two facebook posts (the new journal? ack?) of mine documenting the shift -- because they have dates, I can actually see how little time it took to make the transition from absolutely not counting on to doing it like it's nothing.

From March 7th:

Watched Grace add 8 and 5 today to get 13. I noticed she did it all on the fingers of one hand and seemed to be counting up to thirteen. I asked her how she did it, and she explained she did 4 + 4 +5, because she somehow already knew 8 was 4 + 4.

Doesn’t it seem kind of weird that she can break that problem down that way in her head all to avoid using two hands to count (I think maybe she was holding something with the other hand?), but still can’t simply count on (i.e. start at 8 and then count 5 more up to 13)?

From March 22nd:

Grace magically started counting on today!

(in the context of a card game where this matters...) Me: Grace, what's 4 + 7
Grace: Do you mean 7 + 4?
Me: Sure -- that's the same thing.
Grace: Okay... [counting to four on one hand], 8,9,10,11... 11!
Me: Grace, who taught you to do that?
Grace: No one, I just do it.
Me: Huh.


So I can tell you with reasonable certainty that 2 weeks ago Grace couldn't count on when I tried to coach her to do it and looked at me in total confusion when I suggested it as an approach to handling numbers that didn't fit on her fingers. Now she's doing it like it's the most obvious thing in the world, with no awareness of having learned it.

The question, as ever: did she "learn" this from the inadvertent teaching I've been doing as I've been trying to understand how she does math in her head, or did something in her development just click today so she was ready to do it now?

I realize the answer is almost certainly a little of both, but I certainly lean toward the development side of this question. It amazes me how many skills seem absolutely unlearnable until some magical threshold is passed and they're learned seemingly effortlessly...

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Us-guys:" how Lila recreated the birth of "nosotros," only in 2-year-old English

Yesterday at whole foods, all three girls were on the verge of melting down and we had a long drive ahead of us. I grabbed a box of truffles for the road. As I did so, I noticed that Katharine had already gotten one, leading to this exchange:
Me: Oh, you already grabbed chocolates?
K: Yeah, I got some for work.
Lila (excitedly): Some chocolates for work and some for us-guys!  [əm wawI fə wək æn əm wawI fə əsgaiz]
Grace (archly): Lila, it's "us," not "us-guys." Dad, she said Us-guys.
This led, of course, to me giving an impromptu lecture on the evolution of "nosotros" in Spanish, which, though unappreciated by Grace, I will nonetheless repeat here.

 At about the time Spain was busy conquering the world, it was in more or less the same place we are now with its evolution of second person pronouns. Spanish, like English, started out with singular and plural second-person pronouns:


EnglishSpanish
Sing.PluralSing.Plural
1st person:IWeYoNos
2nd person:ThouYouVos

In both languages, the plural form was used as a term of respect for people of rank, both in the second person and the first (the royal "we"), etc. In what seems like an odd move, both languages at one point or another generalized the plural/respectful form to a universal "you" form:


EnglishSpanish
Sing.PluralSing.Plural
1st person:IWeYoNos
2nd person:YouYouVosVos
Obviously, that leads to confusion in the 2nd person, and a great deal of innovation has occurred in both languages to fill in the gap.

Various innovative forms
EnglishSpanish
Sing.PluralSing.Plural
2nd person:You, ThouhYou, Y'all, You guys, Yous, Yous guysVos, Tú, Vuestra merced, UstedVos, Vos-todos, vosotros, vuestras mercedes, ustedes

Eventually, Spain evolved four different 2nd person forms to address formal and informal, singular and plural, and "vosotros" became the standard 2nd person informal plural form. It was only after the evolution of "vosotros" that "nosotros" came into being instead of "nos" as the full (non-clitic) form of the first-person-plural pronoun, presumably as an attempt to regularize the forms by rhyming them (of course "nos" and "vos" had originally rhymed, but by this time "vos" was no longer a plural pronoun).

So, what does all of this have to do with "us-guys"? Of course, "us-guys" was formed by precisely the same pattern that formed "nosotros" in Spanish. Just as "otros" was taken to be a plural marker, "guys" is understood by Lila as the plural-marker in my Northeastern dialect. It strikes me that it is quite possible that Lila learned the grammatical meaning of "guys" (turn a pronoun plural) before she learned its literal meaning.

To understand what happened in the Spanish in terms of modern-day English, you would have to imagine the following events taking place in order for English to arrive where Spanish presently is:

1. All speakers adopt Lila's habit of adding "-guys" to "us" and "we" in addition to adding it to "you" (you-guys, us-guys, we-guys). This new us-guys form becomes so common it is used universally by speakers everywhere, no matter what their feeling are on 2nd person pronouns.
2. "Thou" becomes trendy again and becomes the normal informal 2nd person pronoun, leaving "you" on its own to sound old-fashioned and oddly formal, except in a few countries colonized by England, where "you" continues to be the normal pronoun or where it exists in alternation with "thou."
3. "Your honor" and "your honors" becomes a standard form of formal address in all kinds of situations, except in particularly left-leaning English-speaking enclaves, and becomes contracted first to "yonor" and then finally to "onna" The abbreviation is written either "On./Ons." or "Yn./Yns." depending on where you see it.
4. Many people stop saying "you-guys" all the time, so that "you-guys" sounds like a particularly New-England thing. Most of the world uses "onnas" for the 2nd person plural, regardless of formality.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Texting Speak + Cross-Language Pollination + Morphology = New Words

So the other day in a dopey article I grabbed from a Spanish teen magazine for students to look at, I discovered the Spanish word "BeFa" (also spelled "befa"). From context, I had a gut feeling it meant "best friend," which a Puertorican student confirmed for me.

This word is awesome: it derives from "BF" (English internet/texting speak for best friend). I assume (dangerous, I know) that this happened in the following way:

BF - borrowed form from English
be efe
- borrowing as pronounced in Spanish
befe - new word form from fusing the two letters. Spanish phonetic rules don't distinguish between double vowels between words and single ones (this is how "ten te en pie" becomes tentempié, for example)
befes - new plural word form based on Spanish morphological rules for creating a plural
befa - new playful Spanish feminine form, based on Spanish morphological rules for creating a feminine form. This is highly unusual, however, because usually words ending in "e" do not change form for gender.
befas - new plural feminine form.

Quick google searches seem to confirm that ="befe" (m), "befes" (m), "befa" (f) and "befas" (f) all exist as forms in Spanish. Google also confirms that my proposed intermediate forms "BF"and "be efe" also exist, as well as "mi be efe efe" and "mi be efe efe efe" which suggests that some speakers think the extra "f" in "bff" serves as an intensifier rather than standing for "forever." Some other hybrids that exist but are rarer are "BFa" and "BFas." I was able to find only a handful of hits for "mis be efes" and none for "mis bes efes," suggesting that the whole "BF" is taken as a word and not as two words.

Google ngrams, alas, has yet to capture the phenomenon in print -- I'd love to have an up-to-date Google ngrams like tool for internet text as well as print.
Question: what other texting words are likely to have crossed over into Spanish?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A regional accent emerging: friends trump family

Overheard from my eldest daughter at the end of a skype with cousins...
Grace: /Wəts 'ðæt pɪkʃʌɹ/ (What's that picture. )
Katharine: /ðæts ə pɪkʃʌɹ əv ænt 'ɛli/ (That's a picture of aunt Ellie. )
Grace: (annoyed) /'ɒnt ɛli/ (*Aunt* Ellie. ) 
 So Grace is beginning to assert accent independence from her loving parents. I'm pretty sure neither Katharine nor I routinely say ɒnt, so this must be coming from school (it is, I believe, the standard pronunciation here in New England).

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Even in an article about ngrams, NYT fails to care enough about language to factcheck

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love google ngrams. So I was interested to see David Brooks wrote a column based on it.

The beauty of google ngrams is that it makes it easy even for journalists to check facts about language. But that doesn't mean they bother to do the work. Alas, the column, which promised to string a series of ngrams observations together, in fact had its facts wrong.

For example, Brooks claims that:
That is to say, over those 48 years [between 1960 and 2008], words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” receded.
For the time being, let's ignore the likelihood that the use of the word "tribe" in published books represents communal feeling and check some facts. I began with, "common good" and "band together," and saw that they do not both "recede" as he says. "common good" did drop over the middle of the 20th century, but has been rising over the last twenty years; "band together" has risen steadily over the last two centuries.

Next I tried the phrase, "I come first." It seemed only fair to put it in context by searching a family of such phrases, so I included phrases such as "family comes first", "faith comes first," and so on.

It turns out that "I come first" and "God comes first" track each other nearly perfectly, both rising and falling over the last one hundred years without any clear overall trend as he describes. The only clear trend that emerges from the set is a steady rise in the phrase "family comes first."

I decided to test his general theory that we've seen a rise in individualism and a decline in collective thinking with the most basic words and searched "myself" and "together." Alas, the chart holds nothing to confirm Mr. Brooks' argument.

To be clear, even if the trends he describes were true, they wouldn't necessarily tell us much. Rare in these word lists are phrases that seem equivalent -- comparing trends around "economic justice" and "prudence" (two words that do actually move in the ways he describes) doesn't tell you much since a speaker would virtually never be in a context in which they would be likely to use either word.

But even if his analysis was valid, his data are not.

It's hard to believe the NYT would be this lazy fact-checking anything else. Can you imagine they'd allow a column on sports in which the win-loss records were all made up on the spot? Or a column on politics that got the number of republicans in the senate wrong? With language, you might argue, it is harder to check facts, but in this case the article actually describes the tool needed to do the fact checking, a tool free to the public and a mouse click away.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Three Word Sentences

Lila's language has been exploding for a month or two now, which means she is now in one of my favorite phases linguistically. I have to try to pay attention this time: somehow with both Grace and Clara, I went from counting words to expecting them to use basically the full grammar system of English without really noticing what happened in the interim. And I mean that pretty completely. Clara, at 3, already commands the English equivalent of what my Spanish students still struggle with as Seniors. The other day a friend commented after hearing her use the pluperfect progressive and I realized I wasn't even noticing new structures any more, and hadn't been for ages -- I expect the grammatical structure to be pretty much complete already, with only the predictable lapses in irregular forms left for cuteness.

Anyway, Lila is very much in the early sentence phase, and what's fun is that a huge number of her utterances fall into 3 word sentences that basically look like the top of the tree diagrams my middle school English teacher had me learning. Do you remember those diagrams? If you never did them, here's a guide.

SUBJECT | VERB | OBJECT
This was the basic structure of all sentences. Understanding that diagram meant you could write complete sentences, meant you would always be able to identify a fragment or a run-on, meant you could pretty much parse anything you wanted to. Here's what's kind of neat about Lila's speech right now: she has near total respect for the basic SVO word order in English, but complete flexibility about what kinds of words can fill the verb slot. So her diagrams look more like this:
SUBJECT | WHATEVER-I-FEEL-LIKE | OBJECT
Here's a list of some typical sentences:
SentenceStandard EnglishComments
Mamma hep meHelp me, mommy.The present tense can work as commands like this in Spanish, but not usually in English.
Dadda up me, no mamma up meDaddy should carry me, not mommyPrepositions can be verbs. Also, she can string these puppies together!
Dadda oh no bookDadda knocked over the bookExclamations can be verbs
Mama book meRead me a book, mommyNouns can be verbs
Dada mma* meDaddy kissed mePhysical actions can be verbs too!
Dada may-meh meDaddy carried me to the basement!Places can be verbs!
Baby doll oh no mihBaby doll spilled the milkThere can be subjects other than mom and dad
*actual kissing sound, not a word.

She of course also has some sentences without objects, like these ones:

SentenceStandard EnglishComments
Dadda book oh no!Daddy's book fell overNote a proto-genitive here
Mamma memehMommy basementNote a proto-locative here

Well, there's a list of sentences so far. I'll do my best to listen out for other emerging structures as she rounds the corner towards her 2nd birthday this summer. I believe she is sometimes varying the SVO structure I presented here -- I think I've heard her use VOS appropriately to put emphasis on the subject, suggesting she may already understand the underlying Theme/Rheme structure, but I'm not certain enough of any examples to write them down. I'll keep my ears out!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Grace, Clara and æ/eɪ/ɛ allophone v. phone distinctions

I noted some time ago that Grace complained about my pronunciation of "lego" (which I pronounce as if it were spelled leggo, I suppose). Clara's now about the age Grace was then, and predictably enough, we had the familiar exchange recently:

Me: Clara, do you want to play legos (lɛgos).
Clara: Not lɛgos, daddy! Leɪgos!!!


Obviously, Katharine says Leɪgos, and that sticks with them as the correct pronunciation, even though I'm the one that plays legos more often, I think...

Yesterday, Grace and I had the following exchange (forgive my crappy phonetic transcription):

Grace: Daddy, can I have some? ( dædi, kɛn ai hæv səm)
Me: Yes you can. (yɛs, yu kæn).
Grace: Daddy! You said can (kæn) like a soda can. You meant to say kɛn.


This one's kind of cool because Grace is taking what I see as a set of allophones (kɛn/kæn) and hearing a distinction. Of course, she's right that /ɛ/ and /æ/ are distinct in lots of English words -- witness minimal pairs like fen/fan, send/sand, etc.

I've now been spending a lot more time paying attention to the word "can" as I say it. Of course, the funny thing is that saying kɛn in a stressed position is incorrect. I'm pretty sure, though, that we never say kæn in an unstressed position, saying something like kɛn or perhaps even kən or kɪn instead.

I wonder how much of this, and in how much detail, they cover in teaching foreigners English.