Saturday, July 2, 2011

Prepositions: About, Por, and Gracese

After I read Grace (for what turned out to be the 3rd total time) the chapter about Malaria from Little House on the Prarie, she was all aflutter about the different theories presented in the chapter. Mrs. Scott thought the fever was about the watermelons she said, and Ma thought it was about the night air, she added, but they didn't know that it was because of the mosquitos.

The reason Grace found the chapter so interesting was that it ends with a little coda that says "they didn't know that..." and then explains how mosquito bites carry malaria. That simple phrase -- "they didn't know" -- was quite captivating and led to another homily from Grace about the limits of human knowledge (sometimes little boys and girls don't know... and sometimes mommies don't know... and sometimes daddies don't know... and sometimes teenagers don't know...).

What I found interesting was her use of about. Particularly, it struck me because in teaching Spanish to English speakers, the pronouns "because" and "about" (both of which often translate as the same word, "por") stick out.

Grace's use of "about" seems in line with Spanish "por" which can mean anything from "by way of" to "by cause of" to "by means of." What's odd, though, is that none of these uses of "por" translate to "about." In fact, the only clear case where "about" translates to "por" is the spatiotemporal sense ("it's about five" or the somewhat antequated "somewhere about").

The most common use of "about" I can think of is the meaning that "it has to do with" or "its topic is." I suppose this makes sense... "Mrs. Scott thought the fever had to do with watermelon but it was because of mosquitos."

Still, it all gets me thinking about our friends the prepositions, all of which have multiple meanings applying across multiple domains (causality, space, time). It seems totally natural even at a much younger age to expand meanings (Clara's language constantly demonstrates this). What is trickier is how the meanings get cut off, so that we learn to say "she thought the movie was about pandas" but "she thought the fever was from watermelons."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Semantic Innovation Starts Early

Clara's language has been exploding since I last blogged, more in how much and how persistently she uses it than in how many words, but really in all ways.

This morning, Clara wanted me to read to her but needed a diaper change. I asked if I could read to her after she got a new diaper and she said "mo mo" and pointed at her book a couple of times, then happily went off to get a new diaper.

It's hard to convey in text why these things are so clear, but what was crystal clear from the way she uttered the word and the way she subsequently behaved was that Clara was using "more" to mean "in a little bit," and then emphatically repeating it to make sure I would do it.

The concepts aren't actually that different. You could use both "a little bit" and "more" to mean "I want more cereal", so why not use both to mean "in a little more time."

Of course, these kinds of innovation are incredibly common (and useful), especially when you're dealing with a tiny vocabulary like Clara's at present, but I still think they're neat. One of the most common questions I get from students as a language teacher is why words have multiple meanings. This usually comes up when some common word is revealed to have a new meaning they didn't know or when a word in Spanish has two meanings they need to learn (every new turn in a foreign language is perceived as a personal affront). Watching kids learn language I always think is the sort of linguistic version of "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," the point being, if you want to know why words have multiple meanings, just watch kids talk. They're constantly mapping new meanings onto words, expanding the territory they cover. Of course, we only tend to notice the mappings that aren't (yet?) part of standard English, like Clara's use of "more" this morning -- the mappings that are in keeping with our language tend to go unnoticed entirely.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Thoughts on Ed Tech, Technology and Attention

I just came back from an interesting technology forum (a Massachusetts Superintendent's Forum on Transforming Teaching & Learning with Technology). There's a number of thoughts I have from the conference, but the first thing I wanted to blog from it was some thoughts on attention and technology that sprung both from the content and the form of the event.

Early in the conference, we went over some of the new National Education Technology Plan, in particular, the need to focus less on content (which changes too fast anyway, the reasoning goes), and more on creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and research, which will be the key to creating the highly adaptable citizens and employees we'll need in the future. All of this strikes me as true, although not in any fundamental way different from the what much older reformers (think Dewey) have had to say about skills vs. knowledge, which means valid and interesting objections to those theories that have been raised by some (think E.D. Hirsch) probably apply to this as well.

The first presenter, a superintendent of a school district that's done a lot of work to put technology front-and-center, talked about the importance of the shift from direct instruction to more collaborative models to support these goals. Much was said about the mountains of information created and consumed every minute on the internet and how obsolete modes of instruction couldn't cut it anymore. I was struck, as many participants at ed conferences before me surely have been, by the irony of the fact that I was sitting at a session that was, in fact, two hours of direct instruction hearing about how direct instruction was obsolete.

Looking around the room, I thought about us as a group of learners: the group consisted of superintendents, principals, technology coordinators, and teachers. I'd say about 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 people there had an iPad or a laptop out. A similar number had a smartphone on the desk in front of them, a number of which beeped and chirred during the event (though none actually rang). Of the screens in front of me, I saw only one that was engaged in notetaking the whole time, the rest all wandered to emails or other distractions at some point.

From what I could see, I was the only person actively taking notes with pen and paper. I'd actually run to CVS to buy a new pad of paper before the conference, knowing that I can't really focus in a big room without something to write on. With my pen and paper in hand, I was thoroughly engaged through and through, writing notes both on things I thought useful and things I found frustrating (I was frustrated by inane things, like the fact that a presenter bungled the definition of virtualization and also by substantive things, like a video we were shown of a group of students taking several minutes to do a task on linked iPads that could have been done in 30 seconds with poster and markers). At the front of my notepad I kept a list of useful references or concepts I wanted to look up later to learn about. When something a presenter said set off a spark of an idea for me about something I wanted to do at our school, I immediately sketched the idea on my paper. When it was time for Q&A, I had something to ask each presenter. After the presentation, I went up to talk further with the presenters, took down names and emails, and made plans to try to make further connections in the future. I came back to school energized and with a clear list of action items based on the connections I'd made at the conference. All of this is as it should be.

Which is to say is that I know how to sit at a lecture in a conference and get something useful out of it. On another day, I might be writing that we should have had a more collaborative structure at the forum -- that we should have had BOFs break off, or at least some small group work or paired conversations -- surely educators know how to do such things. There are lots of kinds of work for which this would probably be more useful and it may be this would have benefited some of the people at this forum as well. However, this conference was really about sharing best practices and showing what's possible, about disseminating information to people who are in a position to do something useful with it. Given that goal, direct instruction actually made a lot more sense than something more collaborative would have.

Given that direct instruction was the chosen format -- and I think direct instruction is actually a good format far more often than progressive educators tend to admit -- the skills I learned in school for learning from direct instruction -- how to take notes, how to keep my mind engaged even when I'm a little bored, how to maximize the usefulness of what I'm hearing for me -- those skills all played a key role in me having a useful 2 hours. I imagine those skills serve lots of people well in their professional life -- after all, lots of professions require learning at every level, and lots of learning happens through lectures and conferences.

That said, for the professionals around me, as for all of us, I think, the technology in their hands actually presented a real challenge to their learning. There was no one off-task the entire time -- these were generally people at the top of their field -- but lots of people were off task for good parts of the presentation, and there was far more rudeness (chatting, beeping technology, etc.) than I would have expected. It was hard not to think that technology was eroding our ability to learn from one another effectively.

I know that, for me, my decision not to break out my laptop was crucial to my engagement in the conference. Had I had a laptop, I would have immediately started writing the emails when I had an idea for a connection I wanted to make, I would have looked up links to new software the moment I heard about it, I might even have installed and tested that software out there on the spot, all of which sounds like "engagement" but in fact would have distracted me and ultimately disengaged me. What's more, I would have checked the New York Times to see if France had started bombing in Libya or if they'd made any headway on the reactors in Japan and, had it turned out that something had happened, I would have read the articles in the entirety, not wanting to miss out on the events of the world. And that's just the distractions I would have initiaited myself: I also would have been receiving emails and instant messages from people who needed help with tech at school, from friends and family updating me with photos of little ones or plans for dinner, and so on.

When I imagine our teenagers faced with these same challenges, it is, frankly, terrifying. When I think that average class times are somewhere around 45 minutes in many schools, I wonder where on earth they are going to learn focus. One solution would be to just eliminate the two hour lecture format from the world, but I'm not sure that's optimal for reasons I've already mentioned.

People talk about technology as if the key to mastering it is using it more, as if we need to make sure our kids have lots of experience in front of screen to be prepared for "21st century jobs," but I don't for a second think that's true. I would love a chance to survey top programmers (the people who actually do master technology) to learn more about their habits. I highly doubt that they spend more time on facebook, or playing video games, or balancing three chats and two emails while working, than the rest of us do. My guess is that they work hard to find ways to fight distraction. I'm also guessing that they have an ability to focus that they may well have learned somewhere other than just coding -- I wouldn't be surprised to find that good programmers include a higher-than-average number of musicians or painters or readers than the rest of the population.

When I think back to the educational plan's learning objectives: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and research, only research involves computers in a fundamental way. There, it seems, learning to evaluate and understand digital resources has to play a key role in what we teach our kids. Knowing the difference between this and this is vitally important for every adult, and schools need to give kids experience with both the good and the bad and help them learn the difference. But for the other skills -- creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking -- technology can be as much a hindrance as a help if not more. That's not to say I want to purge all the computers from our classrooms, but to say I don't think tech itself is the key to success in an increasingly tech-laden world. We will need students who know how to use a computer, sure. But, more importantly, we will need students who have more self-discipline, more ability to focus, and more ability to tune out distractions than students of the past. The road to those abilities may have more to do with music and art classes than it does with iPads and smartboards.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Clara's first protosentence

Clara has a favorite sentence, but alas it doesn't involve anything you would recognize as a word.

It goes like this:

1. She hides her hands in her shirt.
2. She makes the sound of a car moving (her version of this sound is identical to her dinosaur roar).
3. She moves her hands (hidden in her shirt) back and forth in the motion of a steering wheel.

The meaning of this sentence, which only makes sense in the context of our family, is: "Oh no! Clara left her hands in the car!"

I can confirm this is the intended meaning because Clara gets more and more frustrated and insistent until we say this sentence outloud in confirmation.

Other emerging words in Clara-ese include:

bəbəbə: basketball (Clara's favorite sport, which is particularly interesting since we never watch basketball on television -- she's picked up on this mostly through the big screens at beerworks).
hæt: "that"? A generic deictic word used frequently and enthusiastically while pointing at things.
əməm: yum (used for food and eating).

We are particularly interested to see that Clara has a word for basketball well before she reliably has words for "mom", "dad" and "Grace." Her most common word by far -- far more common than any of her family members -- is her word for car (really just a roar and steering wheel motion). Second most common is "up" (pəpəpə).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The joys of transivitizing (more notes from Gracese)

Just now, Grace and Katharine are looking at a map of the world.

Grace says:
"Let's wander our fingers."

This is the latest in the pattern of Grace over-transivitizing Every time she brings out a new one of these, it wonders me if these follow an underlying conceptual pattern I haven't spotted yet or if transitivization or no is just one more element that must get lodged in the mental dictionary.

It would be fun to try to design an experiment where I tried transivitizing lots of words and waited for Grace to correct me (I realize waiting for her to correct me seems like a bad experimental design, but given that Grace has started conversations about language on at least two other occasions, it might just work).

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Grace's e/ɛ distinction

From Grace, today:

Me: Do you want to play legos ('lɛ-goz)
Grace: No, I call them legos ('leɪ-goz). Why do you call them 'lɛ-goz but I call them 'leɪ-goz.
Me: I don't know. I call them 'lɛ-goz.
Grace: I call them 'leɪ-goz.
Me: Ok.
Grace. Logos, 'lɛ-goz, 'leɪ-goz (laughs)

And so Grace shows off the perfection of her e/ɛ distinction (my poor Spanish-speaking friends of course mostly can't do this). The question is how did she come to learn the word legos as leɪgos and not lɛgos... I'll have to follow up and ask Katharine how she pronounces the word. Do any of you pronounce this word like Grace?

Pronunciation note: lɛ is the vowel sound in "leg." leɪ is the vowel sound in "lay"

Monday, January 17, 2011

Early Claraese

At long last, Claraese is starting to emerge. I'm guessing that over the next two months so many words will emerge that I'll quickly forget this stage entirely, so before that happens I'd like to record what we have so far.

1st clear meaningful words: Three words all have been intermingled for some time -- "mom", "milk" and "more." Needless to say these are usually uttered at moments of desperation. Over time, these are starting to distinguish themselves, with "mom" often articulated as "mə mə" or "mə maaaa", milk articulated with a mid vowel ("mɪ" or "mɛ") or "more" articulated more like a single long "mə"

1st clear, common animal sound: "roar", first made in response to dinosaurs, then to other roaring animals as well. Hard to describe this sound, except to say it's kind of throaty and that there's nothing cuter than a tiny person trying to roar.

2nd clear animal sound: "moo." This one is more interesting because you can hear her articulating the "moo" as she goes -- she starts the sound at "ma" and then moves to "oo", resulting on something that sounds like "mao" or, occasionally, makes it all the way to "maouuu"

Several new words are emerging this week with more frequency, including:
- dad (də də)
- up (pəpəpə) - this sounds more like a play sound than a word, with the vowel almost unperceived and the main focus on repeating a "p" sound
- yes (ya ya) - this was produced after extensive coaching by big sister Grace.
- bye (bə bə) - this was learned as part of a fabulous game involving repeatedly hiding behind the shower curtain. She mostly still prefers to wave for this though.

Clara still prefers to communicate mostly with simple signs -- yes and no nods and pointing. It can take a fair amount of work to elicit a word from her, since asking her questions about me, say, will get her to point to me or to pictures of me or to the door (if I'm at work) but rarely to simply say my name.

As far as recognition, her vocabulary is big enough that it's impossible to enumerate what she knows and hard to estimate how many words. An example of words she certainly knows: names of all family members & friends, names of common foods, diapering and bathroom related words, guitar, music, book, radio, baby, doll, couch, table, and on...

I still find the notion of a "first word" baffling: I have no idea what her first word was.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hybrid Economics... family haulers

We're possibly in the market for a new more family-like vehicle. Like many, we're interested in sacrificing as little fuel economy as possible if we leave behind our civic.

One thing that occurs to me is that it might make sense to get a bigger hybrid vehicle, thus offsetting our decision to buy a larger car with a decision to buy a more efficient engine. Except the economics are rather astounding.

Looking at one such vehicle (the Toyota Highlander), the hybrid costs an astounding extra $10,000 and gets only ~6MPG better. Now these 6 MPG make a bigger difference in a SUV or minivan than they would in a sedan (the marginal benefit of each MPG is bigger the lower the MPG you start with), but still, this is pretty insane.

If I assume the price of gas rises to $6 a gallon (pretty hard to imagine), it would take a smidge over 14 years for this thing to pay for itself if we drive the same amount as we've driven over the past decade or so (that's 12,000 miles a year, or 171,000 miles total). It I assume a more reasonable price of $3.20/gallon, it will take almost 27 years or 320,000 miles. It's hard to imagine a battery lasting that long...

This problem is slightly exacerbated by my looking at a bigger-is-better car market -- the wise folks at Toyota figured that ecoconscious consumers wanting a hybrid would still rather have less efficient 4WD for example -- but only slightly.