Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Capturing some features of Gracese before the New Year

It's been a while since I posted on the evolution of Gracese. Thinking back to a year ago, I realize that this blog is all the record I really have of changes in her language -- my own memory proves far from a reliable tool. That reflection makes me realize I should be blogging her language much more frequently if I want to remember anything at all.

In that spirit, here are some unique features of Gracese as of 12/28/2010.

1st. The incredible, flexible why question
At first I thought this was something common to all 2/3 year olds, but I now believe that my darling Grace asks more why questions per hour than any other creature on the planet. Among my favorite are the questions where she asks about her own motives "Why did I do that." Here's a brief taxonomy of Grace's why questions:
  • Know what's going on with everyone at all times: Why did Grampa go to the basement.
  • Understand full context of all actions at all times: Why did Grampa go to the basement to get a hammer?
  • Confirm what she has just learned from asking a "why" question: Why did Grampa go down to the basement because he needed to get a hammer to help Uncle Dave?
  • Make a Veiled request: Why did you go to the kitchen? (when she suspects I just went to get a cookie and would like one herself)
  • Point out humorous situation: Why did Clara think I wanted the doll! (when Clara brings her a doll over and over)
  • Process her own bad behavior: Why did I want to eat in that room? (when she's just been eating in grandparent's living room where eating is forbidden)
  • Process own good behavior: Why did I want to share with Clara!
  • Learn about the world: Why did grandpa say there's a deer in the back yard?
  • Process own mistaken perception of the world: Why did I say there were reindeer in the backyard earlier?
  • Clarify parent's explanation of own mistaken perception of the world: Why did I say there were reindeer in the backyard earlier because it's christmastime?
  • Process parent's explanation of own mistaken perception of the world: Why did I say there were reindeer in the backyard earlier because we talk a lot about reindeer at christmastime?
2nd. Total Refusal to Make a Direct Request
This fits more into social learning and pragmatics than grammar, but it's astonished me this year to see that before the age of three Grace has learned that making a direct request is risky business, to be avoided at nearly all costs. Of course, this prohibition is codified in the way we ask questions and make requests -- "Would you mind...", "Could I bother you to...", etc. -- but I would have thought that child would learn these questions as mere forms and that the basic logic that accompanies them (e.g. that in most circumstances there is no polite way to make a request of another person) would come much later. Not so.

Here is a typical conversation with Grace:
Parent: Grace, what would you like to eat?
Grace: I don't know.
P: Would you like some cottage cheese?
G: No.
P: Would you like a cracker?
G: No.
P: What would you like?
G: You can just give me something.
P: serves something
G: Why did you give me something?
P: I thought you'd like it. Do you want it?
G: Can you tell me?
P: Would you like something else?
G: Can you tell me what I would want?
P: No, I don't know what you want. What would you like?
G: I was thinking you could tell me what I would like.
P: Were you hoping to have a cookie.
G: (eyes light-up) Yes!

I'm pretty sure that throughout this interaction, Grace believes that parent knows that she wants a cookie and that she has to do the dance of indirection correctly in order to get one. This is actually rarely the case -- usually we're simply frustrated that she refuses to say what she wants. Now, at 3 years and 2 months old, Grace almost never says what she wants. And I dare say we almost never say "no" to her, so it's not like this is coming from a long history of failed direct requests...

3rd. Grace's delightful Christmas semantic innovation: "make ideas"
This one is short and charming. About half-way into present opening, Grace caught onto and thoroughly enjoyed the part where before opening the present we guess what might be in it (we were making up particularly absurd and silly guesses for her amusement). Before opening a present, Grace began to request we start guessing by saying: "Let's make ideas about it."

Later in the day, she switched to "let's make up ideas" which became much less charming. How quickly they learn!

4th: Grace uses the past tense instead of the infinitive with "did" questions

Grace has used "do" correctly to ask questions for quite a long time. I've often wondered, however, if she understands the somewhat complicated "DO + INFINTIVE" construction the same way we do (where we first form "DO + INF" then split it apart to form a question) or if she thinks that "DO" is simply a question particle (like "ma" in Mandarin or "ne" in Latin).

I suppose she can't think "do" is merely a particle -- she conjugates "do" correctly as a verb (using do/does/did appropriately). However, interestingly, she frequently also puts the verb that should be in the infinitive in the past tense when making "did" questions, such as:

"Did you went to the store"
"Why did I wanted that?"

I haven't really adequately researched what's going on here. I wonder if there are any other constructions that allow two tensed verbs in this way, without a subordinating structure and without any coordination going on. I also need to focus more on just what Grace is doing. After Grace's nap today I'll have to try to get her to say a third-person present-tense question (the only kind where the tensed verb would look different from the infintive) so that I can see if she says something like "Does Clara likes to eat?" I should also tease out whether she in fact uses the tensed past-tense verb with both "Wh-" questions and yes/no questions as my examples above suggest (I can't attest she uttered those actual sentences, just ones like that).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why don't people correct punctuation aloud?

I've just started listening to the New Yorker's podcasts of writers reading favorite stories. The most recent one includes the following sentence early on:
"Ahmed", she asked the Turkish student with the magnificently drooping mustache, who always wore the institutes janitorial keys hooked to his belt, "Where are they holding the symposium."
Like many a sentence that has graced the New Yorker's pages, this one is a mouthful. What immediately bothered me on hearing it read is that the reader put a comma in where it doesn't belong, like this:
"Ahmed", she asked the Turkish student, with the magnificently drooping mustache, who always wore the institutes janitorial keys hooked to his belt, "Where are they holding the symposium."
This comma throws off my whole reading of the sentence. By adding a comma, my brain takes "with the..." to be non-restrictive and assumes (nonsensically) that "with the... mustache" applies to her asking the student (I'm not sure why my brain doesn't allow a non-restrictive clause here, but it doesn't -- I assume that any restrictive clauses would apply to "she" or "she asked"). I don't know exactly how to describe what an oral comma is (in this case she clearly takes a breath at the comma, but I think there's also the change in stress in the way she pronounces the next word that tells you what's happened), but I know it matters to understanding. I'm sure they carefully edited this audio, and I'm sure that had she mispronounced a word they would have rerecorded. So why not fix this one? (I'm making two assumptions that could be wrong: 1. That others hear this as a comma and 2. That a comma here is wrong).

At any rate, I hear this kind of error all the time and was excited to have one in a recording I could actually relisten to (the downside is that this is not nearly as clearcut as many such examples are). When my students make this sort of error reading aloud in class, I make sure they correct it. I find that especially when reading long sentences (Dickens, Shakespeare), allowing mispronounced punctuation to stand can quickly render a beautiful text hard to make out. I'm constantly annoyed when radio hosts and readers don't hold themselves to a similar standard.

It seems we're much more likely to let stand an error in punctuation-pronunciation than other types of pronunciation errors. That leaves me wondering: do others hear these as errors as well? Am I right that we are less likely to correct errors in punctuation than other types of pronunciation errors? Can you think of a time on the radio when you heard an announcer correct their punctuation outloud?

Science, the Soul and the Brain

Just read an article on ADHD which pointed me to a statement by a consensus of scientists on the matter. Like many who work in schools, I am something of an ADHD skeptic, which is not to say I believe the disorder doesn't exist but that it seems from my anecdotal evidence to be overdiagnosed and overtreated (I realize the same inconsistencies I see may lead others to believe it it underdiagnosed and undertreated -- when in doubt, my tendencies lead me away from meddling with nature, so I assume over- rather than under-).

The article in the Times cited brain imaging and gene studies (two kinds of studies I am particularly skeptical of, since so many of the gene studies involve needle-in-haystack approach likely to produce false positives and so many brain imaging studies involve such small numbers of study participants -- both the Atlantic and the New Yorker have had interesting articles on the tendency of the results of studies like these to "diminish" as they're studied further).

What bothers me about including these kinds of studies in an article defending ADHD's disease status is that the question of a condition's environmental or genetic origin or physical manifestation in the brain doesn't have much to do with whether it is a disease. Including this information prominently when discussing the legitimacy of the "disorder" designation for ADHD (or any other mental condition) always makes me imagine the writer is leading some portion of readers down a logical path that goes like this:

1. We can see it in the brain!
2. We can link it to a gene!
3. It's a disease!

I suspect this logic is tied to an ancient mind/body or soul/body divide, in which we have a breakable treatable body and an immortal unbreakable soul. Assuming some portion of readers subscribe to that worldview, the problem is that mental illness affects the domain of the soul rather than the breakable body, hence the emphasis on linking a condition to the breakable treatable body in order to show it's a disease (earlier today I heard someone on the radio insisting there was no difference between "physical" and "mental" illness -- bringing this line of thought to its natural conclusion).

I, of course, believe all we are is the breakable, "treatable" body, which is maybe part of why I worry so much about how we know what to "treat" and what not to. As scientific knowledge advances, we will presumably be able to follow the template above for essentially all personality traits and mental states, which is why that template is no use in helping decide when to treat and when not to.

Of course, no scientist advances the logic above. The statement from scientists on ADHD the article cited uses a two-part definition of mental illness that makes much more sense:

1. There is a "deficiency or failure" in a psychological mechanism or ability that would normally be expected of all humans.
2. This deficiency leads to harm to the individual.

Given this definition, you would expect an article defending ADHD's scientific status not to be full of brain imaging and gene studies but instead to include a careful definition of normal and sub-normal attention (the first linked article actually starts to do this) and evidence about the harm done to the individual (the consensus statement focuses more on this). I would also expect cross-cultural studies would be much more important than gene studies or brain imaging studies ("all humans" is a key phrase -- if a disorder seems to disproportionately affect Americans or a given subgroup, then it starts to call into question its nature as a disorder).

In other words, what I'd expect ADHD believers and skeptics to be arguing over would be things like cross-cultural studies and widespread surveys on the one hand and the definition of attention on the other. As someone who's filled out many surveys to help diagnose kids, I worry about the bluntness of this tool, and my mind would be substantially put at ease if I knew there were something much more precise at work in treating kids than checklists about fidgeting in class and missing instructions. It would also be useful to know if people suffering ADHD exist on the tail of a bell curve or if they exist as a more discrete "blip" in the spectrum of human attention -- something more akin to a genetic or behavioral "switch" being flipped. If the condition does exist on the tail of a bell-curve of "attention", I would expect there to be lively debate over when to treat (I assume a debate because the normal treatments have substantial side-effects -- if this were something like giving people eyeglasses, obviously it wouldn't matter as much).

I suspect that instead we get the lists of gene marker and brain region studies not only because of buried "soul" argument but also because of a kind of technophilia that assumes modern forms of research and knowledge are more valid than older forms. After all, most of what I'm saying would be germane to the debate -- cross-cultural studies, tests for and definitions of attention -- could have been done just as well with 19th century technology.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Stupid commas (if lisp ran the world...)

Does it give me away as a programmer that I think commas would be much easier to teach if we used parentheses instead?

And am I peculiar in my absolute conviction that commas basically are parentheses, where any nested parentheses (commas inside commas or commas at a sentence edge) get collapsed and disappear?

Here's a student sentence I'm giving feedback on:
Although Desdemona has no thoughts for anyone but her beloved Othello, he mistakes the kindness she naturally bestows on everyone, as a particular fondness for another man, Cassio.
In my mind, there are two acceptable revisions of the basic comma error in this sentence:

Although Desdemona had no thoughts for anyone but her beloved Othello, he mistakes the kindness she naturally bestowed on everyone as a particular fondness for another man, Cassio.
Although Desdemona has no thoughts for anyone but her beloved Othello, he mistakes her kindness, which she naturally bestows on everyone, as a particular fondness for another man, Cassio.
But what I'm really seeing in my head is that this:
((Although Desdemona had no thoughts for anyone but her beloved Othello) he mistakes the kindness she naturally bestowed on everyone) as a particular fondness for another man (Cassio))
should become this:
((Although Desdemona had no thoughts for anyone but her beloved Othello) he mistakes the kindness (which she naturally bestowed on everyone) as a particular fondness for another man (Cassio))
or this:

((Although Desdemona had no thoughts for anyone but her beloved Othello) he mistakes the kindness she naturally bestowed on everyone as a particular fondness for another man (Cassio))
Of course, as with lisp, this would be much clearer with a little indentation
(Although Desdemona had no thoughts for anyone but her beloved Othello)
he mistakes the kindness
(which she naturally bestowed on everyone)
as a particular fondness for another man
Is it just experience with lisp that makes me think this way, or does this go on in everyone's head?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Word order and Spanish teaching

Just to say I wish we (Spanish teachers of English speaking students the world over, as well as Taco Bell marketing wizards) would stop teaching kids to stay "yo quiero" "tú quieres" etc. etc.

Of course, "yo quiero" is a valid sentence in Spanish (as is "quiero yo"). So what's the problem?

The problem is as follows:
1. English speaking students will always understand and produce sentences like "yo quiero" based on their native language anyway so we don't need to drill this into them more.
2. English speaking students will *not* understand sentences like "Es un lugar donde conviven diversas culturas" (to pick a sentence a Spanish 4 student just misunderstood).
3. English speaking students are already primed to misunderstand sentences like "te quiero" or "me quieres." Explicitly teaching them valid but stilted and awkward sentences like "tú quieres" from day 1 does not help the matter.

The trouble is that in a relative clause, Spanish speakers are much more likely to put the subject after the verb, so just as the difficulty of reading ramps up (with more complex sentences), students are much more likely to see sentences with seeming "backwards" word order. If we teach students from the start that word order is flexible, and that the verb ending is the real "home" of subject-meaning rather than the word before the verb, we do much better.

I don't have any actual evidence that teaching e.g. "tú quieres" makes the problem worse, but I am suspicious that it does and I'm certain that it doesn't help the matter.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Grace the (prescriptive!) sociolinguist

Last night, I had the following excahnge with Grace:
Grace: One two three four five six seven, eight nine tell and then eleven. Twelve thirteen fourteen fifteen sixteen seventeen eighteen nineteen twenty.
Me: (singing along)... eighteen nineteen twenty...
Grace: No, daddy. You say twen-ty.
Me: Yes, twenty (twenny)
Grace: No. Boys say twen-ty. Girls say twenny.
Me: Grace, everyone says "twenny" most of the time, and "twenty" when they're speaking slowly, or something when you're singing.
Grace: No. Mommy and I say "twenny." You say "twenty." Boys say "twenty"
Me: But Grace, I say "twenny."
Grace: No, daddy. You say "twen-ty". Mommy and I say "twenny."
K (to me): Do we say these words differently?
Grace (insistent): Boys say twen-ty. Girl say twenny.

Where the raw material for this observation came from, I'm not sure. I have sung in many-a-chorus, which training does make me tend to overpronounce my "T"s when singing (I had to unlearn this behavior when singing folky/poppy music where it sounds rather silly to be so hyper-articulated). It's possible that's the root of Grace's observation, though I'm not at all confident that if I could play back recordings of us singing this would be the case.

One of the interesting moments for me in this conversation was when I realized Grace was not being descriptive but prescriptive here. Her initial comment, I'm pretty sure, was motivated by the fact that I had said it like she does (i.e. wrong for a boy), not by the fact that I said it differently from her.

This seems like an interesting window into language change for me. There are a great many variations in language and the human mind is a pattern-hungry and meaning-hungry thing. Obviously the great majority of patterns new speakers pick up (be they sociolinguistic or purely linguistic) are "real" (i.e. observed or obeyed by the vast majority of speakers). But a pattern like this new gender distinction from Grace is the equivalent of a ghost-sighting: she sees cultural significance where there is none. Language change happens the same way mass-ghost-sightings do -- we all have similar minds, see similar patterns, etc. Except that in language there is no "real" outside the minds of the beholders, so if we get enough Graces together, we could produce a generation of women who refuse to pronounce "t"s after "n" for fear they'll sound too masculine (or of women who will start enunciating "t"s to project male power in given scenarios etc etc etc).

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Runner times influenced by language?

Ever since I went to cheer K on running the Tufts 10K, I've wanted to graph the results. Something about knowing they post the times of some 6000 runners made me curious. I was initially curious to see if the results simply formed a straight bell curve or if there were a couple of different "humps" corresponding to different sorts of runners (I could imagine a "competitive runner" hump and a "I want to prove I can make it" hump, for example).

Those results didn't turn out to be that interesting, but one thing did strike me as interesting. The top of the curve, quite incredibly and by a rather dramatic margin, is precisely at one hour. This begs some questions:

1. If there were 55 minutes in an hour, would all of these women have trained just that much harder?
2. Are there other athletic events where even numbers affect performance? Numbers of homeruns? Minutes in a mile?
3. (this one I could check if I felt like it -- maybe I will soon): is this result reproduced in other 10ks? Is there a similar peak at even numbers for other distances?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

me gusta a...

Today I was working with a native speaking student (not literate in Spanish, but basically fluent) who had always thought that you said:

"me gusta + a + NP"

It seemed very strange to me that she would have internalized this grammar, but there's no reason it should seem that strange. The "a" is un-hear-able, so it's just as logical for her to think that we say "*me gusta a hablar" (incorrect) as it is for her to think we say "va a hablar" (correct).

I asked her if she would say "me gustan a los perros" or "me gustan los perros" and this was a no-brainer for her -- obviously just "me gustan los perros", so she really does speak the language correctly.

I'm sure this is no more strange than the fact that native-speaking English speakers mix up "they're" and "their", but I don't usually get to see these kinds of errors in Spanish so it struck me as interesting.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Adjective complements and hypercorrection

Just read the following in a student essay (embedded in a longer sentence):
She feels badly
To my ear, this is a clear error, most likely brought on by poor grammar instruction. "Feel" should take an adjective complement, not an adverbial complement. This is perhaps exacerbated by the prescriptive advice to use "well" (adj) rather than "good" (adj) to describe your health, as in the following imaginary exchange:

Mom, I don't feel good.
Ehhem, you mean you don't feel well?
I don't feel well, mom.

It is easy to see how the child would come to think they were being told that "feel" is supposed to take an adverbial complement (well, adv) rather than an adjectival one, though this breaks down quickly with other adjectives (no one would look in the mirror and say "I feel beautifully"). This is made worse by the fact that there are some other non-standard sentences where a speaker would be corrected for using good (adj) in place of well (adv):
Kid: Wow, that guy throws good.
Dad: You mean throws well.
Kid: Yeah, he throws well.

If I inspect my own internal grammar, this gets a little complicated quickly. Here are some of my own quick judgments:

He throws greatHe throws greatly
He throws beautifullyHe throws beautiful
He throws phenomenallyHe throws phenomenal
He throws awfullyHe throws awful
I don't really know how to analyze this, or if other adult speakers would agree with all of my judgments. Perhaps "great" is already an adverb in my brain? Perhaps "good" is too for many people but not in official Standard English? All quite messy, leaving me rather unsure what to write on this student's paper, if anything.

It seems that nearly any topic, investigated with a bit of thoroughness, quickly exposes the limits of my own grammatical knowledge and, even moreso, of traditional prescriptivist grammar as I learned it in middle school.

-- update --

Joon points out that dictionaries list "great" as an informal adverb, so that makes sense of the "throw" case relatively well. I have to say that to my ear, "great" is not particularly informal and is in fact more correct than "greatly" anywhere but before an adjective. This is surely an area where the famously vague "adverb" category of traditional grammar is failing us -- there are different rules for modifying verbs and adjectives and so on.

I also note that "badly" is listed as an adjective in the dictionary with meanings including "in poor health" and "sorrowful, regretful." So the dictionary rules my student correct, and it's just my intuition/ideolect that has her making an error.

It does seem a bit too tidy, though, to list "badly" and "well" as having special adjectival meanings that just so happen to work with feel. I wonder, was there at some point a misconception about feel and adjective complements that brought this into the language? Or some other structure?

"I feel well" seems to belong on a list that includes "I feel poorly", "I feel terribly" and "I feel badly," all of which sound pretentious and wrong to me. Only "badly" and "well" are listed as adjectives on that list. "Sickly" is a word that seems to have a an obvious place on this list, though in this case, "sickly" really is a full-blooded adjective.

Part-of-speech algorithms...

Just finished grading a student's essay that repeatedly confused "este" (that, demonstrative) with "que" (that, complementizer). Whenever I see a repeated part-of-speech error like this, I try to put together a simple algorithm to help the student. In this case, it goes like this:

If replacing "that" with "this" yields a valid English sentence, then you mean "este/esto/esta." Otherwise, you mean "que"

Example: "That man is stupid." --> "this man is stupid" --> use "este"
"He said that I should." --> "*He said this I should" --> use "que"

This one is actually quite straightforward. Other times, it's trickier, like when I try to teach the difference between the past tense and the past participle by making use of the fact that English makes this distinction for irregular verbs only:

Replace the verb in question with a form of "write." If you say "wrote", you need to conjugate a past tense verb. If you say "written", you need the past participle.
"I played baseball" --> "I wrote baseball" --> past tense
"Baseball is played all over Cuba" --> "Baseball is written all over Cuba" --> past participle
Here, the trouble is that semantically, "write" (or whatever irregular you choose to use) may or may not make any sense in the sentence in question, thus confusing the student.

Nonetheless, it is my belief and experience that transformations of these kinds of easy for students, whereas recognizing and labeling parts of speech is difficult (probably because the parts of speech are usually taught using incorrect and confusing generalizations). That said, the question remains: how useful is it to have labels for the categories? Is it better to teach "if you can replace that with this, it's a demonstrative" or to teach "if you can replace that with this, use 'este'"?

More provokingly, is there a way to teach such that students will never make the este/que error in the first place. The parts of speech are so far apart that it seems very difficult to imagine they should ever be linked in a student's mind, except through English... it is intriguing to imagine an immersion approach that might eliminate the step through English on the way to learning these structures and thus eliminate the error altogether. Nonetheless, it seems quite possible to me that even if the teacher never said to students that "que" means "that", they would still figure this out and thus be vulnerable to this sort of error...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thoughts on carrying and teaching

Today I helped a number of students out with percent problems in study hall. After helping one student set up a problem correctly, I proceeded to watch him multiply "25 x 5" using the traditional pen-and-paper carrying algorithm and come up with 110. At first I tried to help him figure out where he'd gone in the algorithm, but it wasn't immediately clear to me, and it finally occurred to me why this particular error was so frustrating. "If you have 5 quarters," I asked him, "how much money do you have?" Not surprisingly, he knew the answer at once and was a bit surprised at himself for not seeing it. He then spent a puzzled minute trying to figure out where he'd gone wrong carrying.

The pen-and-paper algorithms for doing addition, subtraction, multiplication and long division are incredibly frustrating for the untidy. When I was in school, I remember turning lined paper on its side to help me keep my columns straight (that was the same year I had to make cut-outs out of note cards to help make sure I read one problem at a time). Yet somehow a great number of untidy students remain slavishly attached to these algorithms, using them as their only method for multiplying, even with very easy numbers.

It occurs to me that the basic algorithms we all learned for simple math are a form of early, somewhat clumsy technology: we use pencil, paper, and columns to help work around our memory limitations. Obviously, we have better technology now: the calculator built into every computer, cell phone and so on. Having students rely on one form of technology (pen and paper) is not fundamentally better than having them rely on another (calculator).

There is of course a very real drawback to both of these methods: you need to have the technology in hand to do the math. Stand a student in a department store evaluating 35% off of $40 and neither technology is very convenient. I would hope, though, that within a second or so even a student daunted by the 2-digit multiplication would know that the discount is between $12 (3*4) and $16 (4*4). It wouldn't take much to then say it must be half way between ($14).

For teachers, though, the pen-and-paper algorithms have a key advantage: they make all problems look the same and all students' work look the same. Errors in computation are relatively easy to spot and correct with these methods. They also are likely to point out (rightly) that mental math is prone to errors and impossible to revise. All of this makes algorithms better to teach.

That said, I wonder how much is sacrificed in terms of flexible thinking, real understanding of what's going on when you carry, etc., by teaching simple rote methods. Might it not be better if most teaching focused on either flexible mental math models for small numbers and estimates for all numbers (that took into account human memory limitations) or calculator-based math for precise numbers (that eliminated problems of human sloppiness). In such a world, students might learn the pen-and-paper algorithms in much the same way they learn to compute square roots using tables -- as an artifact from pre-calculator times. Most of their effort, though, would go into quickly evaluating problems like "30 * 49" (30 less than 1500, thus 1470), 491*35 (slightly less than halfway between 15k and 20k, thus a bit less than 17,500), and 48 * 48 (between 1600 and 2500, closer to 2500). Students should be able to do at least these quick estimates quickly, I'd think, as a means of having general number sense when reading an article or out and about, and as a means of checking for typos or column-os when calculating them precisely by hand or by calculator. But, I doubt that they can and I doubt that they've been asked to with anything like the frequency with which they've been asked to calculate sums on paper.

It strikes me that throughout education, decisions may be driven by these same factors, favoring work that is reproduceable with little variation across students, easily represented on paper, and possible to complete by following simple steps against work that tends to support multiple solutions and happens mostly in your head. I can think here of other "tidy" processes often enforced en masse, such as notecard systems for research, 5 paragraph structures for essays, and so on. It may be that such systems produce the most reliable results as far as work from students, but isn't our goal for results in their minds. And, if that is where our goals lie, how can we possibly measure success there?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Real Counting!

Grace has been doing something like counting for months now, with numbers going up into the twenties, but tonight Grace did her first confirmable real counting. Here's the interaction:
We're looking at a drawing of a funny man I drew (this is a game we play -- draw something funny then name what's wrong with the picture). This particular man had 6 arms.
Grace: What's funny about the man?
Me: What do you think?
Grace: I not know.
Me: How many arms does he have.
Grace: 4!
Me: Count them.
Grace: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6! He have 6 arms!
Counting is of course a poem and an algorithm (point to one item at a time while reciting the poem without repeating), and I've often wondered if to Grace it was merely a poem and a gesture (point to items while repeating the poem until bored). Tonight, Grace very clearly was using the algorithm correctly. As an extra bonus, I got to see that she hadn't actually memorized the appearance of 6 items as a unit -- her immediate fuzzy-math brain answered "4!" and only after counting did she arrive at the actual number (with dice games and things I've often been convinced that she was memorizing the number-of-dots as shapes rather than as a group of objects she counted).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

First Words

I'm always amazed that other parents can report the first words their children spoke. How on earth can you be sure?

At any rate, I can report that Clara's first words that I'm positive were words -- used and understood, with clear meaning, etc. -- were an emphatic "AAAH DAAAAA" (all done) at the end of dinner the other night. Clara also did the appropriate gestures for "All Done" (a sort of clapping that K must have picked up from daycare babysign and then a wild waving that Clara has added to make it sure we know she's done). The "Ahh Daa" was spoken first, clearly -- the gestures were only really added when I paused to marvel at the clarity of the words rather than getting her out of her high chair -- ah, the frustration!

This is assuming that the first word must be spoken. If not, then I have a clear first word from this past weekend (earlier still): "clap." I asked Clara to clap, for once not clapping myself or gesturing but merely saying the word, and she immediately began clapping. I tried out some other words and quickly found that she seemed to also know "wave" and "dance."

I realize that it can be hard to know for sure whether she knows these words since, understandably, her patience with being told what to do and doing it does wear thin rather quickly.

Other contenders for first-word (i.e. other things we think we've heard her say) include: "Clara" and "Hello."

How I know what counts as first, I know not, but I can definitely say that Clara is using language now -- let the fun begin!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

More Gracese: overtransivitizing

Here are a few more sentences I wanted to blog about before I forgot them, mostly for their charm, but also for their grammatical interest:

Grace, asking me to toss her in the air: Daddy, will you jump me


Grace, hearing me drop something: What did you just fall down

In both of these cases, Grace has transivitized a verb according to the standard English pattern, except that Standard English doesn't transivitize either of these verbs in just this way.

Here's the standard pattern Grace is working from:

VerbIntransitive FormTransitive Form
To XTo cause (Y) to X
OpenThe box opensShe opens the box
StopHe stops at the sign.She stops traffic.
SitShe sits downShe sits the doll down
TripHe trips over the rug.She trips him.
Move over
I'll move over for you
I'll move this over for you

For any students of Spanish following, the same pattern applies in Spanish, with a "se" marking the intransitive forms.
VerbIntransitpattern.pattern.ive FormTransitive Form
To XTo cause (Y) to X
AbrirLa caja se abreElla abre la caja.
PararSe para al señalElla para el tráfico.
Se sienta.Sienta la muñeca.

Not too long ago I read a nice description of which verbs accept the transitivizing pattern and which do not in a popular linguistics book. Alas, I can't recall which book at the moment, nor can I really recall just how strongly predictive the explanation given is.

Grace extended this pattern to two cases where it doesn't belong. In the case of "fall down", there simply is no transitive form of "fall." I suspect that this is part of a relatively clear pattern.

In the case of "jump", there are a couple of transitive uses, but neither of them mean "to cause to jump." Instead, they mean "to jump (at)" or (in checkers) "to jump (over)", with the transitive form basically eliding a preposition. If I think of other verbs similar to "jump" in meaning, I can see some similar transitive uses: skip (vt = to skip over), hop (vt = hop on, as in a train), or in other cases no transitive form available (prance, leap).

Thinking of verbs of motion, there are some neat patterns -- flip, turn, and spin all follow the transivitizing pattern, for example, whereas skip, hop and jump do not -- but it's still a bit hard for me to see what the proper pattern is.

Here's a rough chart of some verbs in the family...
Follow patternHas idiomatic transitiveHas no transitive form
flip, turn, spin, twist
hop, skip, jump
leap, prance,
Move (over)
land, fly

take off, soar
crash, trip

fall, stumble
break, hurt, heal

get better, get worse

Laying it out this way, it's hard to believe there is a pattern underlying it (though I imagine there is, at least of a sort). At any rate, I don't envy Grace the job of sorting it all out.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Adjectives and more unexpected ambiguity

Tonight Grace and I had the following interaction while reading a story about a girl saving pennies in a penny jar:
Me (reading): "She put all the shiny coins in the jar."
Grace (responding): But not the dark ones.
It took me a second to figure out what she meant, but it did occur to me that given the structure "all the ADJ NOUN", her assumption that ADJ was restrictive was not a bad one. Only given the (false) assumption that all coins are shiny and the knowledge that shininess is not a good criterion for sorting coins when saving money is the correct reading, in which "shiny" serves as descriptive embellishment, obvious.

All of this reminds me a bit of teaching adjective order in Spanish. One common example given is "La blanca nieve." The explanation of this word-order is that adjectives providing an extra flourish of description can be preposed, whereas adjectives playing the more typical function of restricting the set of nouns being described are postposed.

When you try to explain this in terms of emphasis, it gets quite confusing, because whether "La blanca nieve" calls more or less attention to the word "blanca" depends on your frame of reference ("blanca" is extraneous information, but the fact it's being mentioned at all given its obviousness serves to emphasize it).

Of course, in both the case of the "shiny coin" and "la blanca nieve", it seems that contextual knowledge -- about the importance of shininess in coins and whiteness in snow -- plays a much more important role than grammatical patterns.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Conditionals, requests, language acquisition (i.e. more on Gracese)

So last night I was reading Grace a board book about birds. The board book actually pretty much is dedicated to defining "birds", which would make it an interesting subject for a post on word meanings some other time... the pages said things like "most birds fly" and "all birds have feathers." After reading to Grace about feathers and looking at the picture, I asked Grace...

me: would you like to have feathers, Grace?
Grace: (after a pause) Daddy, why did you say I can have feathers?

A couple of cool things here. 1. Grace used the verb "say" to indicate the presuppositional content of what I said (i.e. to mean "imply"). 2. Grace heard "would" in the polite sense whereas I meant it in the hypothetical sense -- polysemy exists in way more places than just word meanings.
In case it's unclear, let me spell out the intended and understood meanings of my sentence:
intended: imagine having feathers -- what would that be like?
understood: Have some feathers, if you please.

Grace's misunderstanding seems unlikely because I tend to think of the hypothetical meaning of the conditional as primary. Thinking about the history of language, this seems true -- the tense serves for talking about possible but not-yet-true realities, and has then been ritualized in polite forms in which we ask indirect questions rather than make requests of each other. But of course in the world of a toddler, indirect questions are much more common than hypothetical situations. My first thought on hearing Grace's response was that Grace may not understand the hypothetical meaning of the conditional at all -- she may know it only as the form we use for polite requests.

This is something I often see when we ask Grace to rephrase a demand in more polite language. Like most parents, we are merely expecting Grace to say "please." But often Grace rephrases without the please, but using the more polite indirect form.

Grace: Bring me milk Daddy, right now!
Me: Grace, can you ask for that more nicely?
Grace: Would you bring me milk right now daddy?
Me: Can you be a little more polite?
Grace: Would you bring me milk right now daddy pleeeeeeease?

Of course, the "would you" transformation is probably a more important bit of learning than the "please" bit. Now to figure out how I'll know when she's actually learned to use hypotheticals...

Sunday, May 30, 2010

iTunes sucks

I feel like in the GNOME world, it's often an unspoken assumption that Apple sets the standard for good design, and that the free software folks just hobble along trying to meet it.

Having not used Macs extensively since the quite-well-designed OS 8.6, I've often assumed this is true (nevermind the poor design of the "Dock" etc).

With K's lovely new iPhone, I had occasion to download iTunes lately (and I kept Windows on a partition of my new laptop just for this purpose -- ugh). This is a sort of submission, ever since my unfortunate altercation with a Mac Genius last time we bought a Mac product, when said genius knew virtually nothing of what file formats the iPod supported and could only tell me, repeatedly, "you just use iTunes."

Well, now that we have an iPhone, it appears you in fact have to use iTunes (things don't just work in Ubuntu with it, and you can't buy cool stuff for it without iTunes anyway), and all I can say is iTunes deeply, deeply suck.

Here are just a few experiences so far:

1. I try to copy a movie to the iPhone. I drag and drop it -- this is the paradigm of virtually every mac app everywhere since multifinder was introduced. This starts playing the movie. Nowhere can I figure out how to exit the movie -- I finally quit the program and reopen, at which time I have to reenter my password information.

2. I can see my shared library from my Rhythmbox machine -- sweet! But I can't copy the songs or download them to iTunes, even though they're DRM-free easily-copiable songs in the linux world (I only buy music from Amazon so as to avoid DRM).

3. I copy my music library into iTunes from a networked folder since the "magic" way didn't work and the app hangs. I have to force quit the application, leaving me with about 1/5 of my music library.

4. I try to "sync" the iPhone to the program in order to let Katharine update her Audobon app and install her newly downloaded TV show. I get a series of confusing messages about syncing "erasing" everything on the machine. Finally, I click "OK", rather frightened of Katharine's losing all the apps she's already paid for. Fingers crossede.

Long story short: the "syncing" model is rather confusing, iTunes is buggy and doesn't seem to be threaded properly so that one operation (importing a library) hangs up the program with no easy way to pause that operation. Furthermore, long operations such as syncing don't include time estimates.

Of course, on the plus side, the iPhone itself is pretty sweet. According to K anyway -- I don't really get to play with it much, and I don't dare to since I might want to write apps for it, which dooes not exactly promise to be a free and open experience to say the least.

I'm pretty sure any neutral comparison of iTunes to Rhythmbox would have Rhythmbox dominating iTunes in usability and feature set. Except, of course, the ability to work with the Apple store -- but that's not exactly Rhythmbox's fault.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

poop, the past tense, and phonological features

So last night Grace said, "I pooped," a pretty typical sentence (we're mid potty training here). Here's how she said it:

ai pʰupʰɪt

This struck me as a pretty interesting utterance.

Here's the relevant background information. First, the Standard English past tense here is formed by two simple rules.

1. Gramatical rule: Add "d" to create the past tense (unless the word already ends in "d/t" in which case you add "ɪd" in order to make the "d" audible).
2. Phonological rule: In a consonant cluster, the voicing spreads from the first consonant rightward in English (the opposite can happen at other times -- as it does in Spanish, for example, where voicing spreads leftward to affect the pronunciation of the "s" in "mismo" or "beisbol").

poop --> (grammar) poopd --> (phonology) poopt
One more piece of background information that is important is to understand Grace's rules for syllabification. Grace has for a long time not permitted consonant clusters. This is pretty typical of children's speech in English, and is typical of many languages throughout the world so it's also true of many accents. Her basic rule is that a syllable consists of C + V + C, where C is one consonant, V is one or more vowels and C is one consonant. When a word contains more than one consonant, Grace has two options: she can ignore a consonant or add a vowel. In practice, she does both, as in the following pronunciations:

Grace's syllabification at work
James: "dʒeimɪz" (standard pronunciation: dʒeimz)
Books: "bʊtʰɪz" (standard prononciation: bʊks)
Star: "tʰɑɹ" (standard pronunciation: stɑɹ)

These have been standard Gracese for a while. Obviously under the pressure of the Standard English she hears every day, all of these formations will eventually give way to the standard ones, and we have started to hear the occasional consonant cluster out of Grace already.

Analysis of Poop-it
Given Grace's rules for syllables, and Grace's frequent formation of past tense words in English with the "d" suffix, I would have expected her to form one of the following two forms:

1. Gracese: pʰupʰɪd (poop-id)
2. Standard: pʰupɾ (poopt)

What she did, however, is she formed a hybrid. This raises the possibility that she has learned neither the grammar nor the phonological rule described above, but has instead simply heard the word form "poopt" and interpreted it based on her own rules for syllabification.

This shouldn't seem that surprising, but to me it is. Listening to her talk, it seems so clear that she is using our grammatical endings "z" (plural, third person) and "d" (past tense) in a variety of contexts. But of course, it's entirely possible that instead of hearing Grace alternate between uninflected forms ("I poop") and inflected forms ("I poopit"), what I have in fact been hearing is simply her alternating between two pronunciations/interpretations of the to-her unpronouncable ("I poopt): "I poop" and "I poopit").

Of course the real proof that she is inflected verbs at all will only come when she begins to create novel (i.e. erroneous) forms like "goed" and "throwed." I can't say for sure whether I've heard these yet -- given how common they are in kid-speak and how interested I am, it's likely we haven't hit this phase yet.

Except that my second example of Grace's syllabification above is in fact a novel form: bʊkɪz. If Grace were in fact simply hearing and mimicking the word form, we would predict "bʊk" or "bʊkɪs". So are these novel forms? Has Grace learned to inflect for number but learned tense simply as "vocabulary"?

Hard to know for sure, but for the next few days I'll be paying close attention to those verbs and nouns that end in unvoiced consonants.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lanugage Explosion, Subordination, Intonation

Looking back over this blog, it's hard to believe that just two months ago I was still making lists of new words in Gracese. Now creating any such list would be an enormous and absurd undertaking -- new words show up daily, ranging from "preying mantis" and "mulberry bush" to "namaste" and "forsythia" and Grace is starting to know things I don't know (she taught me the words to "pop goes the weasel" last night, and she can list of the last names of all of her classmates -- most of which I can't interpret or reproduce accurately).

Grammar is still something I can try to track, though. I posted a while ago on subordinate phrases in Grace's language. Grace is beginning to use complementizers on occasion (where/how/for), but for the most part she still prefers the null complementizer (e.g. "I tell mommy Clara has a poopy diaper") and uses null complementizers even in cases where standard English does not allow it ("*I not know this goes").

Of course, with null complementizers, a skeptic might tell me that Grace is not in fact saying "I tell mommy Clara has a poopy diaper." but "I tell mommy. Clara has a poopy diaper."

To disprove the skeptic, I'd need to get out my recording equipment -- I'm quite sure that you can hear the punctuation difference quite clearly, not just in the lack of a pause but in the intonation ("Clara has a poopy diaper" sounds different in a subordinate phrase than it does as a standalone sentence -- said more quickly, with less stress, perhaps lower tone -- I don't really have the technical vocabulary to describe this correctly, but I'm quite sure you know it when you hear it).

All of this has me thinking about how I teach high school students to recognize subordinate phrases, a skill that comes in handy in at least three places: 1. Correctly punctuating the increasingly sophisticated sentences students try to write in high school. 2. Correctly reading complex sentences in writing by folks like Hawthorne, Dickens or Shakespeare 3. Understanding where the subjunctive is used in Spanish (as hinted by the "sub", the subjunctive can only occur in subordinate phrases).

I usually follow the "dependent/independent" clause method for describing subordination -- asking if a clause can stand on its own or not (if not, it's a dependent clause, a subordinate clause, and might have a subjunctive verb in it). Of course, there are cases where this fails, as in Grace's "I tell mommy Clara have a poopy diaper" where either clause could stand on its own. How then to explain to the student that "I tell momy" (Le digo a mamá) is the main clause and "Clara have a poopy diaper" (Clara tiene/tenga un pañal sucio) is the subordinate clause?

It strikes me that teaching them to recognize the intonation difference in the two clauses might be quicker than trying to teach a heuristic for determining which clause is dependent. It also would teach a valuable reading skill -- incorrectly reading a subordinate clause as a main clause is a major error in reading that leads to errors in comprehension. Yet I fear because we lack a clear language for describing it, this is an error that gets corrected much less reliably in teaching reading than less grave errors such as mispronouncing an unfamiliar word (the mispronounced word reveals a single gap in the puzzle; the misread subordinate clause shows the student has missed the very structure of the puzzle they're working on).

On the Spanish side, that leaves me only the exciting task of teaching them the difference between the very normal "Le digo a mamá que Clara tiene un pañal sucio" and the extremely odd "Le digo a mamá que Claro tenga un pañal sucio." which not only asks for a dirty diaper but implies that mom has the power to control Clara's bowl movements...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Thoughts on Lesson Planning

Like many teachers I know, I don't really write lesson plans.

Let me rephrase that, I have historically written plans for one of three reasons:

1. When someone was going to review a lesson with me (i.e. a supervisor would observe or a team would look at one as a model or to critique).
2. When co-planning (i.e. when another teacher was going to be using my plans the next day.
3. When required to (i.e. during my student teaching when I had to hand in all lesson plans).

When teaching on my own, writing individual lesson plans has never risen on my priority list above, say, working on something that students would be given, tweaking a project description, assessing student work, or working on longer-term planning.

That said I've certainly taught classes that would have been better if I'd taken even another 10-15 minutes to plan better. And of course I reinvent the wheel all the time, whereas if I had better plans I could theoretically be revising and revisiting rather than redoing and reinventing.

So the question this raises for me is how can I force myself to do those extra 10-15 minutes of labor to plan better and document what I'm doing for posterity without recreating the lesson plan templates of my student teaching that I find so overwhelming and droll.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that most of teaching I hold in my head. If I walk into class with a poem and three questions in my hand, I'm bringing much more: an idea about which vocabulary words will cause trouble and how I will pre-teach them in a drill, a sense of which lines are most difficult and how I will guide the whole class through an understanding of the difficult lines before setting them up with the (easier) rest of the poem for independent work. I also likely have a template to how my day goes -- we start with a drill, then have a Q/A with the whole class, then do small guided group or individual work followed by prolonged work and a wrap-up. If I take the time to explain it, there's a whole plan in there, but all I actually need are the questions and the poem, maybe with some underlining to indicate words to pre-teach.

Currently, many such templates mostly exist in my head, but I could probably benefit from writing them down. Templates would describe certain kinds of flow that could, over time, be refined, revised, and perfected. I could also come to notice those tasks for which I don't have a clear template and then start to chip away at the question of how best to teach them. For a given level and subject area, there may only be 5 or 6 templates over all: all classes fit those moulds. An individual lesson plan would then consist of basically a set of parameters that would slot into the template.

The list of parameters would likely take up no more than half a page, which is about the length of plans when I make them now (actually, now my usual length is a sticky). The beauty of something so short is that it is more readable and more adaptable for future years. Even when I have full lesson plans now, the very thought of reading a multi-page document is overwhelming. Having an ever-evolving description of a few templates in addition to sticky-length plans that reference those templates seems like something a more-effective version of me could actually do.

What's more, I have a feeling that both of these kinds of documents (templates and parameters) would be more useful to other teachers than full lesson plans. One frustration with trying to use other people's plans off the internet is that inevitably there are too many accidental factors that may or may not fit your class (class length, logistical rituals, etc.). Giving someone just the parameters -- here's the objective, the problem set, etc. -- would let them plug it into their own template for good teaching.

On the other hand, if what you're looking for is good instructional practices, then you want just the reverse -- a template that you can slot your own content into.

So this is my new idea. In programming, this is very common -- essentially I'm talking about separating data from display, or separating the model from the view. So the question that now occurs to me is: who else has had this idea? What names have they given it? Do there already exist books full of templates and parameters?

The other question of course is about the risk of abstraction. I am often guilty of the sin of over-abstraction in programming, and is it possible that templates, in the end, would be too leaky? I'm not sure, but I'm going to try to find out -- my goal for the end of this year is to start writing up templates and parameter sets. We'll see where it gets me.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Champion Teachers misteaching grammar

Inspired by the New York Times article a few weeks ago, I started reading Doug Lemov's Teach like a Champion in spite of a title so bad I can hardly bear to repeat it here. I very much like the idea of a teaching book that focuses on the mechanics of teaching, rather than on higher-order ideas that so often can become muddled or meaningless in practice.

Completely incidental to the points the text is making (which are content-neutral), I've already found two examples of "good" grammar teaching that are rather distressing to me.

In the first, the answer is right but the definition wrong, in the second, only the definition, which is wrong, is given.

1. Definition of a Subject

The task is to identify the subject and the sentence is: "My mother was not happy." The student (A) in the example guesses "happy." The teacher asks for clarification from another student (B) and gets the definition that "The subject is what the sentence is about." The teacher says this is correct and then asks student A what the subject is again. Student A replies "mother." End example.

This is an example of the rule "No opt out," where students always are forced to give the right answer, even if they at first get the answer wrong. You might think that the teacher above was just going easy on student B to move the lesson along, but the next section of the book, "Right is right," is about how important it is not to pretend students are right when they're not, so I think we can safely assume that Lemov thinks this answer is right.

If you're wondering why the definition is wrong, it's easiest to just give some counterxamples:
1. It is raining. Grammatical subject: "it." Subject according to above definition: rain.
2. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Grammatical subject: "it." Subject according to the above definition: marriage.

2. Definition of a Noun.

The task is simply to define a noun. Lemov gives the example of a student who says "A person, place or thing." The champion teacher does not accept this answer but prompts a more thorough response, until given "A person, place, thing or idea."

The importance of the idea clause here is telling, because it is the vagueness of the concept "idea" that has let so many educated people believe this definition for so long. It is, after all, entirely obvious that not all nouns are people, places or things. However,if you consider that things like "liberty," "truth," and "proof" are ideas, conceptual entities if you will, then it seems like this definition might just do.

The trouble is many nouns are clearly actions. In fact, we have suffixes that let you turn verbs into nouns, thus creating newly minted nouns out of any action we please. Here are a few very simple cases of nouns that are not people, places, things or ideas:

"Destruction" as in "The hurricane resulted in devastating, wide-spread destruction."
"Liberty" as in "I am not at liberty to say."

How would I define "noun," you may ask. I teach students the following simple procedure for identifying a noun. It is not perfect, but it is close, and it doesn't include any out and out lies: "If for a given word X you can say "the X" but not "very X", then X is a noun." Every native speaker can apply my rule perfectly every time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Grace's first linguistic question...

Following up on the topic of taboos, Katharine reports that today Grace asked her her first question:

G: Mama, what's doo doo?
K: poop.

Pesky taboos

Quote of the day: "Está jodido", said by an earnest Spanish 2 student describing a character in a movie about to be carted off by fascists...

Meaning and usage learned correctly from an Orishas song he studied earlier in the semester. The description of the character was also correct. He just missed the pesky detail of register... It's always interesting to see the kind of Spanish students speak (and the kind of errors they make) when you give them authentic sources.

This is one of many words that students would typically never encounter in a textbook but which they would likely hear within a few days of arrival in a Spanish-speaking country (presuming they make contact with other youth, that is). Not all these kinds of words are swear words, they also include simple phrases like "mande", "vale", "venga" or "anda."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Grace's first subordinate sentences

Over the last couple of days I've started noticing sentences like this one in Grace's speech:

"Mine not know this goes"

The sentence above translates into standard English as

"I don't know [where/how] this goes."

The context is putting a puzzle together, so it's pretty clear that this is what she means.

Null complementizers are of course allowed in English in sentences in alternation with "that" (I saw the man you mentioned / I saw that man that you mentioned, etc.). However, Grace is using a null complentizer where we would use an unstressed question word as a complementizer -- where, when, how, etc. She knows these question words in other contexts, but question words as complementizers play a different grammatical function and are harder to pick out, I'm sure, since they're unstressed, so it makes sense that she hasn't picked them up here yet.

I wonder how comprehensible someone would be if they left out all of the question word complementizers... evidence so far is that it wouldn't be too bad -- when I first mentioned the sentence above to Katharine, she could swear she'd heard a "how", though when we got Grace to repeat it it was clear there was no "how" there. It's amazing how much filling-in we do when we listen, and how much of it is unconscious. Even though I'm aware of lots of the irregularities of Grace's speech (using a "t" for a "k", for example), in every day interactions it feels like she says words like "kitchen", "cook", etc. completely normally (until, that is, I misunderstand her, at which point I realize that for a "t" sound I have to guess a wide range of possible letters -- t, k, qu, etc.).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How not to use war photography in a lesson...

I'm about to start teaching the Spanish Civil War in my Spanish II class. I was looking around for some resources on the web -- I'd gotten it into my head that if I could find some resources aimed at lower-level native speakers I could make use of them for my students. In the course of my search, I found the following puzzling activity:

The instructions say: "El fotógrafo estadounidense Robert Capa realizó una de las fotos de guerra más célebres de la historia an la contienda civil española. Ordénala." [The American photographer Ropert Capa took one of the most celebrated war photographs in history in the Spanish civil conflict. Put the pieces in order.] In case it's not clear from the screenshot, this is a web applet that allows you to play one of those sliding-piece puzzles where you have to put the picture in order. I have a feeling this was one of many generic "plugins" that were part of the suite of "educational" software... I can't imagine the author ever expected to see this sort of image show up in the shuffle.

I have a pretty heavy level of disdain for this sort of activity... it makes me fear for the time when Grace enters elementary school and a good bit of her time is taken up with activities designed to kill time (pointless word searches, easy "puzzle" games vaguely related to the curricular content, etc.). Not to mention what Susan Sontag might say about this particularly unexpected use of photography... (what do you say to the child when, after putting the pieces in order, they realize they seem to be looking at a man's death?)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

More vocabulary observations

In the interest of not losing track of cute words, here's the latest collection. As Grace's vocabulary expands, this becomes more and more ridiculous, but it still bothers me every time I forget one of these peculiarities, so I thought I'd write them down and share them with the world.

Oddball words on the way out
eat [eet] - until recently used for all consumption (eating/drinking/etc)
drink [nink] - a recent innovation, which made me sad because "mine eat apple juice" was so cute.
noodle [doodle] - alas, she is now beginning to pronounce this [noodle] and yesterday even did a rare self-correction (I blame daycare!) -- "no doodle, noodle!"

barefoot [bay-uh-foot]

Groupings & Family
nuclear family - mine, baby, daddy, mommy [often repeated, as with counting, with repetition, as in "mine, mommy, daddy, baby, mine, mommy, daddy"]
funny names for family and friends - people with cute babies don't get named in their own right. So, her cousin "Liam" dominates that whole family's naming ("baby liam / baby liam mommy / baby liam daddy"). The same is true with our friend's with a baby named Jack ("baby jack" / "baby jack mommy" / "baby jack daddy"). Even better, our friend Sam is tall, slender and wears glasses, like her uncle Dave, so he is called "Sam-Dave" to differentiate him from the real "Dave-Dave" (she refused to call him "Sam", perhaps because her best friend is named "Sam" already).
Caroline (her aunt) - this used to pronounced something like [ladalada] but is now a much more standard [ka-line].
Grampy (maternal grandfather) - this used to be prononuced like [ladaladala], in imitation of a funny noise Grampy made. Now, alas, just [gam-py]
rooms & spaces: living room [liwing room], my room, my bathroom, mommydaddy room, mommydaddy bathroom, laundry room; baby jack school, baby room, mine new classroom, mine old classroom; mimi grampa house, moose,

Speech acts
thank you - recently used in public for the first time
no thank you - recently used to scold herself for pushing daddy [no thank you mine!]

Olympic vocabulary
ice skating, skates, ice princess, pink tutu
skiing, hockey - usually used just to say something like "No skiing, ice skating!"
mine skates off!
- Grace has internalized the important fact that when sitting down after "iceskating" around the living room, one must first take skates off.

The rules of skiing according to Grace: stay blue lines no fall [tay boo liniz no fall] (the rules of skiing, according to Grace)

Cute Phrases
nice try
- used when Mommy tries to pull a fast one.
rack them up - used in pool (more commonly she says the less interesting: "mine put balls in triangle").
nice break - used in pool; overgeneralized for any good shot, not just a break.
talking cat - as in "Mine talking cat"
mine eyes still open! - used at bedtime, to mock us.
mine side/your side - as in, "This mine side, daddy. Get your own side!"
make room - As in "Mommy sit next me, mine make room!"
naked baby - used for all nudity, regardless of age (Clara naked baby / mine naked baby / daddy naked baby).

Grammatical endings
plural marker - [iz] as in "mine more fishiz please"

participle- [
ing] (as in "talking cat")
progressive marker - [
ing] (used without copula, as in "mine playing")
third person singular ending - [iz] (as in "mommy poopiz, daddy poopiz, clara poopiz, mine poop too!")

Poems/Ritual sequences
counting - 1-5 consistently, plus numbers up into the twenties, often in incorrect sequences or with favorite sequences repeated (8, 9, 12, 13, 8, 9, 8, 9, 14, 18, 5, 6, 8, 9, etc.).

abc's -- she now has the vast majority of the song down (entertainingly, the first part she mastered was "Now I know my ABCs, next time won't you sing with me" -- it's taken her longer to actually know her ABCs).

Monday, February 15, 2010

Grace learns "play with"

One reason to blog the oddities of Gracese is that I know they are all destined to die as her little language engine gradually falls into step with all the other little language engines of her generation and produces something more or less identical to my own standard English (with whatever generational quirks her generation comes up with to irk mine, of course).

Over the last two days or so, it's become clear that one of my favorite features of Gracese is moribund or already dead. My favorite feature was Grace's unusual use of "Play" as a transitive verb meaning to have fun with e.g. a toy. Note that normally "play" in this sense is intransitive, whereas play's transitivity is reserved for the meanings of playing an instrument or a game.

Grace, alas, now says "play with." Luckily, this too is not without some charm... I'm not 100% positive, but I'm pretty sure I heard her say "Mine play-with-ing it" the other day :)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

How do you say "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" in linguisticsese?

Today, Grace wanted to go to sleep "camped out" on her bedroom floor. She then decided the whole family should come, and she moved over for me. This was a remarkable event -- usually when Grace comes to our bed she takes over my side and insists that I sleep on the bottom of the bed (I don't actually give in to this demand, for what it's worth). Thus, Grace thought that her moving over tonight was worth repeated comment, which made it pretty easy to tell what she was saying:

"Mine moved over daddy" (standardized spelling).

Which means: "I moved over for daddy"

Which she pronounced, roughly: "mine mov-uhduh ovuh daddy"

This would be the first regular past tense I've definitely observed in Gracese!

What's particularly cool is that her pronunciation of "-ed" looks a heck of a lot like her pronunciation of "did", which is one of the (albeit disputed) theories of the origin of the suffix in English (see Paraphrastic Theory of Origin here). Regardless of the similarity to "did", her pronunciation does look more like Old English weak verb endings (-ede and -ode) than like modern English.

You might think "uhduh" was a word for something like "for", which we would expect in her sentence ("I moved over ____ Daddy"), but as far as I can tell, Grace only has a subset of the prepositions (up, on, down, over etc.) which she tends to use on their own as verbs or as so-called "prepositional verbs". She omits the prepositions "for", "to" and "with" everywhere we would expect them. So, you can analyze this sentence (and countless others like it) either with "Daddy" being in something like a dative case or with "move/move over" having a slightly different semantics in her language (with similar usage to a phrase like "give into"). Other verbs with interesting semantics in Gracese are "play", which is used transitively in the play-with-toys sense, whereas in standard English the transitive play is only used for the play-an-instrument sense. This is a particularly charming one since it comes up hundreds of times a day ("Mine play it", "Mine play those", "Mine play it more right now", "Daddy play it too right now", etc.).

The other reason I'm thinking this new "uhduh" is a past tense suffix is that I've been watching her engage more with the past tense (as a concept) over the past month or so. On other nights, for example, I've noticed her self-correcting to get irregular past tense verbs right. For example, the other night when Katharine worked late and then made a much-celebrated return home at bedtime, we kept retelling the story of "mommy come home." On the thirtieth retelling or so, Grace switched over to "mommy came home" (pronounced something like "Mommy tame home", since she still doesn't really have a "k" sound). The point being she definitely understands the concept of past tense verbs.

Of course, the proof will be when she first produces the sentence "Mommy come-uhduh home" (with the newly mastered ending overriding the correct irregular form) which I am eagerly looking forward to!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why is word order so hard...

Depressing moment looking at some students doing review problem sets for me.... 100% of my students can tell me that "te quiero" means "I love you." I'm pretty sure, also, that they could tell you that "te" means "you" in that sentence, and that the "o" ending there means "I."

However, applying this same pattern to any other sentence (any sentence not already memorized as a stock phrase) is shockingly hard for even bright kids to do consistently.

For example, if I give a test with "la quiero" or "me dan una coca cola", a good percentage of students will answer "she wants" or "I give them a soda."

I've hammered on this fundamental bit of Spanish just about every way I can think of, yet I still can't say I've made half as much progress with this as I'd like to. It seems to take well over a year for this pattern to really sink in... if I weren't speaking from experience, I'd think it could be done with one day's lesson.