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....