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...

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