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.