LANGUAGE SCIENCE FOR SCHOOLKIDS.

In the course of a recent Language Log thread, a comment by John Lawler linked to an extremely interesting term paper (pdf) written some years ago by a student of his named Melissa Demyanovich called “‘Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me This Before?’: Language Science in K-12 Education.” It starts kids off with a subject dear to my heart: “The first class, in first grade, would be a basic introductory course called Languages of the World, which touches on lightly on some topics within Language Science, without concentrating too heavily on any one.” The proposals for subsequent grades are well thought out (though of course I bridle at saddling helpless kids with things like “components of deep structure and theories of movement”), and I wish I thought there were any chance of such a program being adopted. To give you an idea of the level of detail with which the author has thought this through, here’s a proposal for second grade:

Second grade would tackle the subject of phonology. The first class would begin with a question put to the students: “How many languages do you think there are?” The teacher would then tell the students that there are between 6,000 and 8,000 different languages in the world. This would be followed by brainstorming different sounds, and then the announcement that there are 800 different speech sounds in languages in the world. Some of the odder sounds to English speakers will be introduced the first day—clicks, uvulars, and ejectives—to get the kids interested in “funny noises class.”
The first unit will be about the vocal tract, with the students learning to identify different parts of the vocal tract (alveolar ridge, uvula, hard and soft palate). Labeled diagrams and a linguist’s model of the human head will be used to illustrate these. The vocal cords and the difference between voiced and voiceless will be focused on specifically in their own lesson as a basis for the rest of the year.
Students will be given a blank simplified IPA chart (this one specifically shaded to reflect only the sounds in English) which they will fill out with the new symbols and sounds learned at the end of each lesson. The beginning of each lesson will be a review of the sounds which have been already learned. Every sound will be reviewed, until students finish the English sounds part of the course. Then, to cut down on time, English sounds will only be reviewed once a week.

Comments

  1. Though I nearly fainted when I saw what he characterized under “Arabic languages”.

  2. rootlesscosmo says:

    I agree it’s a fine paper, but wasn’t it written by a student of his named Melissa Demyanovich?

  3. Bathrobe says:

    It looks like a pretty heavy syllabus.

  4. wasn’t it written by a student of his named Melissa Demyanovich?
    Ah, I think you’re right. His comment was ambiguous and made me think he had written it (it’s that damned passive we hear so much about!), so I didn’t pay sufficient attention to the title page of the paper itself. I’ll make the correction—thanks!

  5. This deals with elements of language in much the same way the New Math attempted to introduce elementary-school students to elements of the philosophy of mathematics. The problem was that students without a background in math (which would be all of them at that age) would not appreciate the reasoning behind being asked to consider commutative, associative properties of number systems, and set theory. It didn’t help that most elementary math teachers didn’t have the background for this either.
    I would expect the same kinds of problems in this languages course, which might not be appreciated by children without some background in foreign languages already.
    That being said, if I were in second grade, in the “funny sounds” class, if the teacher could find a language that used farting noises, I’d be in for sure.

  6. dearieme says:

    The first class would begin with a question put to the students: “How many languages do you think there are?”
    Bollocks: I hated such twee silliness then and I hate it still.

  7. I went through New Math, and what it seemed to mean was that the first two weeks of every school year the teacher would talk about “sets”, which nobody really understood, and after that we would go back to learning how to multiply and divide.
    I have inherited a lot of my father’s papers, and reading through them I have discovered that I started learning French at age 8, although I have no memory of it before age 12. Despite never having lived anywhere where people spoke French, I have mastered the language enough to order meals in restaurants and ask for directions. So that’s something.
    The concept that children should learn about language is not bad. There is plenty of scope for modifying the current curriculum.
    I think that learning another language has a value beyond being able to ask for extra towels when you’re vacationing in Puerto Vallarta. It shows you that your idea about how the world functions is one of many ideas, all of which could be equally valid.
    I would also like to see basic economics taught at the high school level, since so many people in the US seem to be economically illiterate, but I suppose it is also tied in with critical thinking, which is a taboo subject, lest children develop into adults who might have the ability to deconstruct political advertising.

  8. I hated such twee silliness
    Teacher: Now how many languages do you think there are?
    [Dead silence. Some pupils are staring out the window. Others are playing with their pencils.]
    Teacher: Anyone?
    [Little Dearie has a slide rule in his hand and an obstinate look on his face.]
    Teacher: What do you think, Dearie? Do you have an idea?
    Dearie: [mutters to himself ” … daft … of all the twee …”] Well, I reckon it depends on what you call a language and what you call a dialect [” … stupid git … “]

  9. I hated such twee silliness then and I hate it still.
    At the age of six? My, you were a sophisticated lad. But I suspect most six-year-olds don’t feel that way. And I don’t think asking leading questions need be considered “twee silliness.” What’s the alternative, a straight-out lecture? “Now, children, pay attention: there are estimated to be…” Annoyance in the few is preferable to glazed eyes in the many.

  10. It’s not the words themselves. Whether it works depends on who the teacher is. Dearie may be thinking of visiting policemen who went round schools and asked how many road deaths had been caused by boys not wearing bicycle clips, and then came out with some absurd number you knew had been inflated to include figures for Amsterdam and mainland China.

  11. dearieme says:

    “What’s the alternative, a straight-out lecture?” Of course not; the alternative is to take the wee things through a series of numbers that they can grasp, so that they end up knowing that 8000 is a lot but perfectly conceivable, then tell them the fact about languages. The method advocated in the post just invites waggish enquiries about whether dinosaur languages count, or bored out-of-the-window gazing, or shouts that it must be time for football. And all that from youngsters who may have no feel for how many 8000 is.

  12. Found this website link on my friends facebook page. Im glad I did but I do find that the lecture program or Idea they are trying to establish would be a little to rough on kids of elementary level? However, I can also see the argument that this is when children can learn and develop the most, so it might not be a bad Idea at all.
    [I have removed the spam URL of Alex, a lying phone “accessory” who doesn’t have any friends. -LH]

  13. You’re a lying phone “accessory”, Alex. You don’t have any friends.

  14. Bathrobe says:

    John Lawler retired in 1998.
    Old linguists never die… they just keep posting to Language Log. Sigh. Given my sluggishness while still in gainful employment, I just hope I’m as vigorous in retirement as Professor Lawler…

  15. When my son was 5 his class was studying “work”, i.e. what people’s jobs are like. I was one of several parents who volunteered to address them on the subject. Being a topologist, I naturally brought along a large Möbius strip and did some tricks with it. For an encore I thought of mentioning the Euler characteristic of polyhedra, but I didn’t want to overreach, so instead I just drew an 8-sided figure on the chalkboard and had them notice with me that the number of sides was the same as the number of corners. When I asserted that the same would be true if I drew something with 100 sides, one of the boys got very excited and said “Do it! Do it!”
    Which is to say that large numbers can have a lure for kids of that age.

  16. When I asserted that the same would be true if I drew something with 100 sides, one of the boys got very excited and said “Do it! Do it!”
    Now there’s a boy who is not going to flower into a mathematician as an adult. He will be happier doing the stage sets for Kylie Minogue concerts.

  17. You can be both a mathematician and a stage designer, you know. My daughter has a rather stern-looking maths tutor who used to be an engineer, but he gave up the engineering and now he teaches latin-american dancing. He also tutors maths once a week, as a public service.

  18. Trond Engen says:

    AJP: My daughter has a rather stern-looking maths tutor who used to be an engineer, but he gave up the engineering and now he teaches latin-american dancing.
    Except for the sternness I think I might know him.

  19. Well, there can’t be two.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    JS?

  21. Husker ikke. Må spørre.

  22. I have a 1st grader, who is pretty typical smart-ish kid, and a 2nd grader who is a pretty atypical kid. The 2nd appreciates adult-level BBC science documentaries, and the 1st goes along with things as long as they have nice enough video.
    Now, even though the 2nd has listened to a lectures course on the History of the English Language before she entered 1st grade (this says much about the proclivities of her parents, who would inflict such things on a 5 year old — though she did understand some of it), I’m sorry to say that I can’t imagine either of them going in for a curriculum as described here.
    The funny thing is, there are probably a dozen different world languages spoken in the 1st grade class (or more?) — sampling different phonemes may not be as difficult as you might think.
    The beauty of the modern era is, you can make up such a class and put it on YouTube or iTunes Universe, and see if anybody finds it interesting. So go for it. I will provide the test audience.

  23. I can’t imagine either of them going in for a curriculum as described here.
    I can’t imagine most kids voluntarily choosing school (as most of us know it) in any case. The question is not “What would kids like?” but “As long as we’re going to be cooping kids up for most of the day and boring them silly with the curriculum we’ve decided is necessary to train them for life in offices and other quasi-prisons, what shall we teach them about language?” If they’re going to be subjected to yammering from teachers about language that they’ll resentfully half-listen to, better it should be scientifically accurate yammering than the idiotic drivel they’re getting now.

  24. The 2nd (grader) appreciates adult-level BBC science documentaries
    Many people in Britain feel that, these days, BBC science docs are written for second graders.

  25. Many people in Britain feel that, these days, BBC science docs are written for second graders.
    Those written for second graders may be the ones intended for national consumption only, that are not broadcast on German television. All of the BBC science documentaries I have watched here over the past two decades were well made and related advanced stuff from the past 50 years that I had never heard of – and I am one reasonably well-read, remorselessly fault-finding cookie.
    There is fairly little by German producers that approaches the quality of those documentaries. I had imagined that the British must be much better informed in matters of science than Germans are, on average. But if “many people” claim that the films I have seen are written for second graders, the explanation may be that “many people” just can’t understand them, and try to conceal this inability beneath condescension. Condescension is a typically British defensive strategy, as aggressivenesss is a typically American one.
    I can do both. Want to go round to the pitch with me for a supercilious friendly ?

  26. No doubt you can, G. You’re a fairly quick learner in your own little way.
    “Little” probably features as often in British condescension as “motherfucker” does in US aggro. Actually, I had one particular science-documentary maker in mind. He’s always being singled out in the British papers for his gushing platitudes. A good-looking youngish man with a northern accent, but I can’t remember his name – otherwise I would have included it in my rant.

  27. There’s a much-seen German documentary presenter here who really gets on my nerves: Harald Lesch. He is an ingratiating science uncle who sticks his nothing-can-withstand-my-scientific-inquisitiveness nose into everything, including philosophy (!!). It is to cringe. At the WiPe link I found two sentences about him that Tell All: “Starting in August 2007, the 16-part program The 4 Elements was aired weekly, which deals with the structure of the world, and in addition to scientific aspects, also handles cultural-historical aspects. Furthermore, Lesch can also be seen in the series LeschZug (LeschTrain), which is filmed in an underground train and in which he declares his opinion on current topics.”.

  28. The work of the BBC is mitigated a bit in Britain by Ben Goldacre, a physician who writes a column called Bad Science, in the Guardian, and who recently came out as the son of a ’70s pop singer called… Noosha Fox (#2 in Germany, 1974)

  29. Lesch is a warning to me of what I might turn into, if given rein on TV. It is only in my contributions to Hat comment streams that I allow myself to overstep my competence. In most other situations, butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth (well, it might get soft occasionally).

  30. Furthermore, Lesch can also be seen in the series LeschZug (LeschTrain), which is filmed in an underground train and in which he declares his opinion on current topics.
    That gave me a good laugh.

  31. I find that the Bad Science book has already been translated as Die Wissenschaftslüge [The Scientific Lie].

  32. LeschZug, which is filmed in an underground train and in which he declares his opinion on current topics.
    There’s a lot of potential here. I suppose it’s a metaphorical atom collider, but they could present (for instance) the evening news on the subway during the rush hour, with new topics being introduced at every stop, sports when the train reaches Shea Stadium etc.

  33. That’s a good idea. Unfortunately Lesch never stops.
    I was puzzled by the “LeschZug” title, which seems to make no sense. Then it hit me that it’s a play on Löschzug [a convoy of firetrucks]. His aim is to extinguish the fires of controversy by spraying his opinions at them.

  34. We had a client in Germany called Mr Løsche, it seems an odd name in English.

  35. Stu, it seems that a central modus operandi for this Lesch is to carry on a dialogue with another scientist, or a theologian, or in one case someone described as a “cabaret artist and hobby-philosopher”. I think you should try to get one of those Lesch-interlocutor-gigs. Or would some kind of superavuncular explosion result if you and he were to appear together?

  36. empty: Or would some kind of superavuncular explosion result if you and he were to appear together?
    An explosion would definitely occur, of subtype superavuncular – but I’m not sure what to call the primary type. In general terms, it would be like the tooth fairy (Lesch) encountering a black hole.

  37. After this delightful derailment via Grumbly-Grumpy wit, may I return to the thread?
    Over at LL, Spell Me Jeff said ‘. . .one should be a highly competent reader of the language before beginning any program of grammatical study.’ This rang a very large gong for me.
    The language in question is the mother tongue, a concept that reveals a mother’s responsibility. From age one to age four, my mother read to me daily (I’m sure I insisted). At age four I was pointing to the text to tell her about her omissions and errors. At age five she was getting me the books I chose in the children’s section of the public library. At age six I got my own library card and soon read all I wanted to read from the children’s section, and started to get books from the adult’s section, again on her card. I don’t remember now what I read in the following years, and neither do I remember teachers in the ordeal of school.
    By age nine I wanted to learn Dutch and Danish because I was reading a female thriller writer (Phyllis something?). By age twelve I was thinking travel was wasted on adults and I wasn’t getting any. At age fourteen we had our first opportunity to learn a foreign language and this being Canada, French only. Also in this year we got our first English grammar and (Spell Me Jeff’s point) I got it instantly. Unfortunately it was repeated word for word four years in a row because the other kids didn’t get it, and my marks dropped each year. This was in the Fifties, and in the Seventies (I heard two decades later) the teachers, who didn’t get it either, decided to eliminate it from the curriculum.
    Also in the Nineties I read that, whereas we graduated from high school with a 10,000 word vocabulary, people were now graduating from university with a 10,000 word vocabulary. Now do you understand my remark on a previous thread that young people have small minds?

  38. Bathrobe says:

    By age nine I wanted to learn Dutch and Danish
    You sound atypical. Not all children are so motivated to delve into language and more language, and one shouldn’t expect them to be. Which brings us to the point of Spell Me Jeff.
    Spell Me Jeff seems to be saying that attempts to teach grammar are putting the cart before the horse. The problem is a more basic one of teaching the mother tongue, which can be done without grammar but requires plenty of ‘input’ and ‘enrichment’ (for want of better terms). And a poorly developed command of the mother tongue will lead to poor understanding of grammar and poor results in mastering foreign languages.
    On a more basic level, he seems to be saying that teaching such kids anything sophisticated nowadays is a waste of time when most of them are (it seems) only learning English through text messages.
    So we are barking up the wrong tree. Suggestions for teaching grammar in a structured syllabus assume that the basics are all there and it’s just a matter of adding another fascinating subject to the curriculum. But the basics are not necessarily there at all, and that is where we should be concentrating our energies.
    Not being at the coal-face of education, I’m not in a position to judge whether it’s as bad as Spell Me Jeff makes out. But he does remind us that idealised assumptions about students (well fed, well balanced, eager to learn) are not necessarily a good basis for curriculum development.

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