Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Come Lord Jesus be our guest...

Every evening before dinner we say our dinner prayer. Or more accurately, the parents say it, Tommy sits silently and Maria says the first half and the last 2 words. "Come Lord Jesus, be our guest.. blessed. Amen." Recently, I began trying to teach her the second half of the prayer: "and let these gifts to us be blessed." But, no matter how many times I said it, no matter how slowly I did each word, it still came out "Come Lord Jesus be our guest, mm mmm blessed. Amen!"

It took me several days to realize that this was a futile task right now. Apparently, I had forgotten all my early graduate training! The reason she couldn't repeat the 2nd part of the prayer was because of the structure of the sentence. The second part of the prayer is a quite complex: it has a causative (let...) and a passive (be blessed). She might be able to do the causative, but Id' forgotten that she's far too young for the passive "these gifts be blessed".

One of the very useful discoveries about child language is that children are generally not able to imitate sentences or structures that are not yet part of their grammar. They make mistakes. They avoid the structure. While they can learn them by rote drilling, it's much more difficult than waiting until the child has the structure in their grammar. In 2 or 3 years, I have every faith that Maria will be rattling off the dinner prayer without a hitch.

Passive voice is acquired late in English, somewhere between 4 and 6 for most children. Perhaps even more importantly, it's rarely used, especially in conversation with children. It's the kind of construction that shows up mostly in academic or scientific writing, legal testimony and the like. We don't go around asking our children "Was the toast eaten?" "How was the lamp broken?" We prefer the active voice in English, "Did you eat your toast?" "How did you break the lamp?" We like to identify the actor.

But that doesn't hold true for other languages. Children acquiring some languages (Sesotho or Indonesian for example) appear to acquire passive early. Which goes to show that there's nothing cognitively difficult about the passive voice. Indeed, there is something useful about the passive. Saying: "The milk was spilled" would allow a child to get out of specifying who spilled the milk. Unfortunately for the young English speaking child, their best option is to deny being the actor. Not stating the actor just isn't part of their language. In other languages, the passive is acquired early, most likely is linguistically less complex (a single verb form, not this weird be + past participle), and it is used in every day conversation much more often.

All of this goes to show that language acquisition is a complex dance between what a child hears, what a child can do and the language around them. For Maria, our dinner prayer is probably the only place she hears the passive voice on a daily basis. So, for a while yet, it will be "Come Lord Jesus be our guest, blessed. Amen!" Amen indeed.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Line 9 Powell!

"Line 9 Powell!"
"Line 6 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard!"

We were standing at a bus stop, waiting for a bus, and as each bus passed by, Tommy would shout the number and the destination. This not what I had envisioned hearing as I thought about my son learning to read. The sentences I had envisioned were things like "The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play."or "I am a bunny." Nope, not for our son.

And yet, given that Tommy has never been terribly motivated to read story books, perhaps this is not surprising. He is, however, very motivated to glean information from things like the weather page or bus schedules. If it's information you want, he's the boy to know. We drove to a birthday party in another part of town this weekend. We exited on NE 122nd Ave. When Tommy saw the sign for the exit, he announced: "The 71 bus goes here." He was right, of course.

Tommy has long been interested in information. Nearly every morning since he was about 3, Tommy has read the weather page with breakfast. We started this tradition when we were trying to convince him to switch from long to short sleeves one spring. "It's supposed to be hot today, you might want to wear short sleeves." "Why?" "That's what it said on the weather page." "Let me see!" So we showed him. And with this, a whole new world opened up for Tommy. He'd always been a bit disturbed by the fact that the sun would mysteriously disappear behind the clouds. "When is it coming back?" he'd ask when he was 2. "I don't know," never really satisfied him. He has always liked to know what's coming next. The weather page helped him be able to predict where the sun was and what was coming next.

In addition, the weather page has been a great source of functional literacy skills for Tommy. He's learned the days of the week and to recognize them in print. He's learned to read the symbols on the page (sunny, rainy, cloudy). He's learned to read the city names. He's learned to locate Portland on the map. He's learned to locate other cities on the map as well. He can point to where Aunt Mary lives, or where Grandma & Grandpa S. live or where Grandma N. lives. He's learning to read bar graphs indicating the high and low temperatures or how much rainfall we've gotten compared to average. He's got a sense that 80 degrees Fahrenheit is warm and requires short sleeves and maybe even shorts!

And now he's entering a new phase of literacy, one step closer to reading. And that step has been brought about not by basal readers or phonics instruction but by bus schedules. Tommy's best friend at school rides the bus to school every day, and often brings bus schedules in for the other kids to see. That has created a collecting craze among the kindergarteners.

Bus schedules are all the rage – we have a collection of well over 50. Tommy and his friend bring them in to school. They carefully color the white letters with marker. Tommy traces the route on the inside - highlighting the major stops in yellow and the route in red. And through this all, he's somehow learned to read all of the names of the streets and routes that the buses go on. Last night we were talking about the Number 12 bus. He announced "It's the boulevard bus. It goes down Sandy Boulevard and Barbur Boulevard." He's even progressed to making jokes about the names - saying "Marthin Luter King Jr. Boulevard". He's proud of the fact that he knows the difference between "t" and "th" and highly amused by the reversal.

As with everything, it's good to remember that there's more than one route into literacy. Some kids go the traditional route through story books. Others take the bus.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Which station is not the busiest...not the...the not...busiest

One of the oldest questions in language learning is the question of whether the idea or the word comes first. It's a bit of a chicken-egg problem – can you express an idea if you don't have a word? Can you use a word if you don't understand the idea?

Sometimes in language learning, however, it's clear that the concept comes first. I distinctly remember when I was about 3, learning word 'tomorrow'. I was standing in our living room, and I said something about "the day after the day after today" to my mother. "Oh, the day after tomorrow?" she said. Aha! That was the word I was looking for, but didn't know existed. It's a very clear memory in my mind - the feeling of satisfaction that there was a word to express my idea. While I didn't shout "Eureka!" I do remember thinking "Oh, that's how you say that."

Something similar happened to Tommy about 2 weeks ago. He had concept, but needed the word to go with it.

About once a week, we drive by Fire Station 16 to see the fire trucks on our way home from school. It's a bit of a detour, but not a major one. When we go by, the trucks are almost always in the station. This is in contrast to Station 4 downtown. Tommy often sees those trucks go by school, and they are often out. One day, as we were driving by Station 16, Tommy asked why the trucks were always there. "Well, it's not a very busy station," I replied. (From our perusal of the Portland Fire Bureau's website , we've learned not only what equipment is located at each station (Station 4: One tiller (hook & ladder) and 2 pumpers; Station 16: one pumper and one rescue truck), but also how many calls they have a year. Station 4 had well over 4,000 calls in the last fiscal year, Station 16 under 1,000.)

"Which station is the busiest?" Tommy asked.
"Probably one of the ones downtown, I think."
"Well, Station 4 has over 4,000 calls a year, and I think Station 1 has over 6,000 - that's over 15 calls a day!
"How many does Station 16 have?"
"About 900 in a year, I think. That's about 3 a day."

"Which station isn't the busiest?" Tommy then asked.
"Any station other than Station 1, I suppose."
"No, which station is not the busiest?" "
"Any other station," I replied, wondering briefly about his language comprehension.
"No, which station is not the busiest?" he insisted.
"Ah," having a sudden burst of understanding, "which station is the least busy, do you mean?"
"Yes, which station is not the... is the not busiest?"
"I don't know, but I bet Station 16 is one of the least busy."
(For the record it's Station 15 with just 475 calls for the fiscal year.)

Ah, the struggle of trying to express the concept least without having the word! In this example, at least, it's clear that the concept ("not busiest") came before the word. Many words seem to follow a similar path. Often, the word and the concept are learned together, or at least very closely in time. Does the concept ever come before the word? Stay tuned....

Honey-Roo or Driving the Driver

Maria and I were reading a Winnie the Pooh book one day when she was about 22 months, and were talking about the characters. I pointed to Pooh and said

"Who's this?"
"And who's this?"
"And this?"
"Honey? Umm.. No dear that's Roo."

For several weeks, she adamantly insisted on called Roo "Honey". I guessed that Kanga had called Roo "honey" in one of our stories, and so that's what Maria heard.

I thought no more about the mystery until we were reading one of her favorite books – a collection of songs that had the words changed to be "Pooh" songs. This book was her favorite to 'read' as she fell asleep. It came complete with a "press the button" electronic keyboard that played that song, and she insisted that we sing along with it. (Surely there must be a hell somewhere where the manufacturers of these tinny, off-key singing books will be chained up and made to listen to their inane songs over and over and over again. But I digress.)

There, on the last page of the book was the answer to the Honey-Roo mystery. The song was "Where Oh Where Can My Honey Pot Be?" and there was a picture of Pooh, sitting disconsolately in a chair, missing his honey pot. "I've looked in the cupboard and under the stairs, oh where oh where can it be?" And behind Pooh is a picture of Roo, holding up a table cloth, and on the floor, under the table, is Pooh's honey pot!

I can just imagine a scene where we were reading this book and said "So, where is it?" and pointed in the direction of Roo and the honey pot. Maria, not knowing what a honey pot was, or maybe not knowing what we meant by "it", linked "honey" with the most interesting thing we were pointing toward: Roo. This is a common thing that children do - they will link a word with the most interesting plausible object (see "Nice Finger Mom") that someone is indicating.

So what was going on? A very simple and yet reportedly rare error in child word learning: a mismatch. Children, when they learn words, generally get within the ballpark for the meaning, even if they don't get the exact meaning. So, they may label a 'tomato' and 'apple' but they rarely call it a garden hose! But, every once in a while, a child simply gets the wrong word linked to the wrong object, and labels "Roo" "honey". Maria eventually learned Roo's name, but even now, close to a year later, she will sometimes slip and call him "Honey" again.

These errors can be mystifying. I suspect many go undetected, chalked up to a parent's or child's inability to make sense out of an interaction. Indeed, such was nearly the case for the only mismatch that I detected in Tommy's word learning. When Tommy was 2, his favorite 'game' to play was 'garbage truck'. He would pretend to drive the garbage truck, make brake sounds, stop the truck, climb out, pretend to dump the garbage into the truck, climb back in, and drive on to the next 'house'. This game could be played anywhere (beds, church pews, couches)- but one of his favorite things to do was to climb into our laps and pretend we were the seat and he was driving. One day, when Tommy climbed into my lap, he announced "I'm driving the driver!" "Where?" I asked. "Right here!" "No, where are you driving the driver?" "Here. I'm driving the driver." After several more go rounds, I gave up, figuring he couldn't understand 'where' questions yet.

Then, a week or so later, we were reading his favorite book: Garbage Trucks. On one page, it asks, "Would you like to see where the driver sits?" and I read this and asked Tommy - "where is the driver?" Tommy pointed to the steering wheel. Eureka! Mystery solved. When Tommy said "I'm driving the driver," he wasn't talking about a person or a location - he was saying that he was operating the steering wheel. Apparently, when we were pointing to the picture of the driver, the most interesting thing for Tommy was not the person but the steering wheel. Thus, another mismatch mystery solved.

As with malaprops, perhaps the most interesting thing is how rare this kind of error is. Tommy had one clear mismatch, and Maria has had one or two. One or two real mismatches out of the 500+ words they'd each learned by the time they were 2. Surely there were many more opportunities to get a meaning wrong, and they didn't. However children are going about the task of linking words to meaning, they are, in the end, remarkably good at it.