Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"He" = a man, or gender neutral pronouns make their appearance

I’ve posted before about how my children view gender neutral words such as “firefighter” or “police officer” as the norm. (Actually they don’t say “police officer” they say that someone is a “police,” and so do all their friends. Apparently, we’re in the process of creating a new noun.) Recently, I’ve noticed that my kids’ use of gender neutral language has gone beyond simply accepting gender neutral nouns. They insist on gender neutral pronouns as well.

Sometimes, when we’re driving home, I will complain about the other drivers. Maria will often ask, after she hears me mutter, what I just said. Not wanting to increase her vocabulary of taboo words, my usual response is:

“Oh, that car isn’t being safe.”
“Why?” she responds.
“Oh, maybe he’s just not paying attention,” I’ll say, not wanting her to think the world is full of crazy people.
“How do you know it’s a he?”

She catches me on it every time! I don’t know it’s a “he,” but apparently, I unconsciously use “he” as a generic pronoun. It’s nice to know that my 4 year old doesn’t have that unconscious bias toward male pronouns. For her, “he” is definitely male. And “she” is definitely female. When I respond, “Oh, they’re not paying attention,” she doesn’t bat an eye. Clearly “they” can be either male or female, singular or plural.

Equally heartening was Tommy’s response to the original text of Harry the Dirty Dog. We have an ancient copy of the book, printed in 1956. Last winter, Tommy was reading this book aloud to me as part of his evening reading homework. We got to the page of the book where Harry, having changed from a white dog with black spots to a black dog with white spots, was trying to convince his family that he was really Harry. After Harry had done all of his old tricks, the text reads: “Everyone shook his head and said ‘no, that couldn’t be Harry.’” Tommy stopped at that point and exclaimed

“His head?! It shouldn’t be “his”!”
“What should it be?” I asked.
“Their head,” he promptly replied. And then he thought for a moment, “Or his or her.”

Once again, clear evidence that for my children, “his” is not a generic pronoun, but a specific male one. “They” and “their” are the generic pronouns for my kids. At 7, Tommy recognizes that “his or her” is an option, but it’s definitely a less preferred option. Even so, ‘his or her’ is preferred over ‘his’ alone. Every time we read this book, he stops and complains about that pronoun!

The only reason that we were ‘supposed’ to use ‘his’ as a pronoun was because scholars tried to impose rules of mathematical logic to language. 'Every' is singular, and therefore 'should' have a singular pronoun associated with it. But in English, ‘his’ clearly has a male quality to it, one that my children recognize. ‘They’ on the other hand, because it’s plural, has the quality of ‘unspecified’ gender . If there is more than one, you don’t know if the people are male or female, or a combination of the two. So extending the plural pronoun to refer to a single person when you don't know the gender, is a natural extension. Using it to refer back to 'everyone' when the group is clearly a mixed group of males and females, also makes perfect sense. It’s nice to see the triumph of the function of language over so-called logic.

It was also nice to look up a modern rendition of the story and find that this page, after Harry has failed to convince his family of who he is, now reads “Everyone shook their head...” Sometimes publishers do indeed edit for the better!

Friday, April 3, 2009

C is for Clover: The beginning stages of reading

I was awoken this morning by a 4 year old figure next to my bed, proudly announcing “I know the first letter in Clover, it’s C.” “Yep,” I mumbled, closing my eyes again. Not two minutes later, she was back, “And the second letter sounds like “llllll” so it’s “L”.” “You’re right.” Three minutes later, she was back, proudly holding a page on which she’d written “CLVR.” She’d proudly made a ‘sign-in’ sheet for her bear, Clover, for her newly founded Animal Academy Preschool.

Maria has been working on the steps for reading for quite some time, and now, two months away from her 5th birthday, things are coming together. She got a sticker at dance class last week that said “Great Thinking!” She asked me what it said and I told her. “No,” she said, “that’s not right.” “What?” “That doesn’t have the ‘t’ sound at the beginning.” “Ah, you’re right, it doesn’t. The ‘T’ and the ‘h’ are working together there to make the ‘th’ sound.” The fact that she immediately knew that the letter ‘T’ did not make the ‘th’ sound is one more sign that she’s actively trying to read words, rather than just looking at them as a whole.

The journey to reading has been slow, and it isn’t over yet. Two years ago, when Tommy started first grade, his school asked that he spend 20 minutes a day reading out loud to us. Maria, even though she was only 3, announced that she too would do ‘reading’ too. So, I got out a few early reader books such as the BOB books and some Clifford phonics books. And for a couple of weeks, she would sit next to us on the couch and attempt to sound out the words.

For a 3 year old, she was remarkably good at the first letter/sound. She’d look at the first letter and say “C” ‘kuh’. She had mastered one basic skill for reading - she was able to link a letter with the first sound of the word. Unfortunately, her ability to decode stopped with that first letter. “C” “A” “T” would be “cat” or “can” or “could” or “couch”. Try as she might, she just didn’t have the skills yet to focus on the sounds in other parts of the word. The end of the word and rhyming were all a mystery to her. After a few weeks of struggling to decode the words, she lost interest.

This fall, as Tommy entered 2nd grade, and Maria was 4, she decided again that she would learn to read. In the year between 3 and 4 she’d learned a number of other skills that put her further on the path to reading. She’d learned to rhyme. At first, in order to ‘rhyme’ the words needed to be exactly the same. “Hey mom,” she’d proudly declare, “book and book rhyme!” But slowly, she got the idea that you had to change the initial sound, so she could tell that hook and book rhymed. This is a second crucial skill in terms of reading. By learning to rhyme, she was learning that that words are made up of individual sounds, and that there are patterns to those sounds.

Learning that words can be decomposed into individual sounds is a huge leap in terms of reading. On the surface, the idea of separating a word into more than one sound is a bit absurd, especially if you’re not reading. We don’t speak in individual sounds, we speak in words. On it’s own ‘c’ doesn’t mean anything. It has to be placed with other letters, such as ‘a’ and ‘t’ or ‘a’ and ‘p’. Cat and cap mean something, whereas the individual sounds do not. It’s only when we need to literate in an alphabetic language that we need to see words as made up of individual sounds. By decomposing words into individual sounds, we can easily recognize that the difference between cap and cat is a difference of one symbol, which is in turn, a difference of a single sound.

Despite Maria’s growing skills at decomposing words into sounds, she wanted to take a different tack for learning to read the second time around. She didn’t want to read the BOB books or other easy readers. She wanted to read ‘real’ books. So, we started in on whatever book she was interested in that week. This time, she wanted us to read a sentence, and then she’d repeat. Pretty soon, she had a number of books memorized and could ‘read’ them. I suspect she could still repeat D.W.’s Guide to Preschool by heart.

This process of memorization, though it didn’t put her any closer to actually being able to decode text did help Maria build other skills that are necessary for learning to read. She was learning how words fit into a sentence. She was learning to add intonation and feeling to the written word. She was learning the structure of stories. These skills are as important as the ability to figure out that ‘c’ ‘a’ ‘t’ is ‘cat’. After all, ‘cat’ only makes sense if you know what the cat is doing in the story.

Very recently, something else ‘clicked’ in for Maria, and she has begun to focus on sounding out words again. This time, she is able to pay attention to the sounds at the end of a word, and in the middle of the word. When she sits down to practice ‘reading’, she is actively trying to decode the parts of the word. She still needs a lot of help, and it’s painfully slow to read a single word. First we have to point to each letter and say its sound out loud, then we say the sounds a bit quicker, blending them together and she can get it. Vowels are still a complete mystery, hence the spelling of Clover as CLVR without any vowels. But vowels are the letters that are least amenable to phonic pronunciation, so that’s to be expected.

In one short year, she’s moved from pre-literacy to beginning literacy. She’s beginning to read simple words. She’s got a ways to go before she can pick up a book and read it, but she’s well on her way. Pretty soon a whole new world of written stories will open up to her. I can hardly wait.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Take That Benjamin Lee Whorf!

As we were driving in the car on day this winter, Maria began naming the days of the week: "Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday." She paused, and then she said "It's a pattern! It's like a big circle!"

I had to laugh. In languages such as English, "time" is often viewed as linear, finite and discrete. And here was my daughter, noticing the circularity of time. Given her linguistic and cultural background, how could she do that?

Just that morning, I had been talking with my students about the relationship between language and thought. As part of that discussion, we'd talked about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which claims that the different patterns of a language strongly influence/result in different patterns of thought. This hypothesis began to be explored by the anthropologists Franz Boas and and his student Edwin Sapir, and then was later fully articulated by Sapir's student, Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf wrote:
"We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language [...] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated." (Carroll, 1964).
One of Whorf's most famous examples involves a comparison of concepts time between the Native American language Hopi and the Indo-European language English. In English, words for time are countable, "one day", "three weeks", "seven years". Whorf thus argued that in English speakers view time as linear (as a "path" with one direction) and finite. Speakers of Hopi, on the other hand, were argued to view language as a process which could recur in a circular fashion because their language structured information about time differently.

It's hard to find a linguist or an anthropologist who will agree with the strongest version of this hypothesis: namely that language determines how we think. Furthermore, many will argue that thought is certainly possible without language. At the same time, however, most linguists acknowledge that there is an interrelationship between language and thought. Psycholinguistic experiments suggested that concepts that have a readily accessible name (e.g., colors) can be named faster than those that lack a name. And certainly our language abounds in metaphors that reveal our interpretation of the world - we "spend" time, "waste" time or "give" time for example. These metaphors suggest that time is both precious and limited. The question is which came first: our concepts of time or how our language talks about them?

What does Maria's "circle of time" say about how she views time? Does she view time more circularly, despite the structure of her language? Or is this merely a developmental stage, before she acquires the adult English speaker's concept of time?

Carroll, John B., Ed. (1964). Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

We have three penguins living in our fridge

We have three penguins living in our fridge. They're named Captain Cook and Greta and "Baby Penguin", after the characters in Mr. Popper's Penguins. And they mark an important milestone in literacy. Mr. Popper's Penguins is the first chapter book that we've read aloud.

Since starting first grade, Tommy has to read for 20 minutes a night. He's a relatively fluent, but reluctant reader. So, we're keeping the books that we ask him to read simple. We've been through the entire series of insipid alphabet books: My Little 'a', My Little 'b', etc. The stories all begin the same way: "Little b (or a, or c, or d) had a box. Little b found some buttons (or ants or coats or dogs). She put her buttons (or ants or coats or dogs) in her box..." The plot doesn't get any more interesting than that, and it definitely does not improve with reading and re-reading. We've also been through the whole Clifford phonics reader series, whose only redeeming qualities are that Tommy is interested in them and they are easy to read.

But there is only so much of early, simple phonics readers that a mother can take. Enter Mr. Popper's Penguins. We had received it as a gift this summer, and it had gotten buried upon return. When I unearthed it this fall, a sense of relief came over me. I realized that Tommy had finally matured to the point where he could sit still long enough to listen to a chapter book. I wasn't doomed to early readers for the next two years!

And so our adventure began. Slowly reading a chapter every night or every other night, we were introduced to Mr. Popper, Mrs. Popper, Janie and Bill. As the chapters went on, we met Captain Cook, the penguin sent by Admiral Drake to Mr. Popper in Stillwater, and Greta, the penguin sent by a zoo where she had been languishing. Together Captain Cook and Greta started on a family and adventures.

I'm still not sure how much Tommy got of the plot, but he was getting some of the details. One day while we were driving in the car, he unearthed a toy penguin, a remnant of a Happy Meal. "Gok!" he said. "Mom, this is Captain Cook." Soon Greta (another Happy Meal toy) was found, and a baby penguin. They took up residence in the fridge, just like Captain Cook and Greta had. They live in the fridge during the day, and sometimes come out at night to sleep in the 'nest' under Tommy's bed. They get a bath weekly.

I'm pleased because our foray into chapter books has increased my interest in reading to the kids and it seems to be opening up new worlds of ideas and play. And I know that by reading chapter books, we're increasing vocabulary and literary skills.

Even without these side benefits, Captain Cook and Greta are enlivening the house. The other night, Tommy was watching Dad play computer games before he went to bed. Dad began to play a game called "Penguins". Tommy raced down the stairs, flung open the fridge, grabbed Captain Cook and Greta and raced back upstairs. He placed them carefully in front of the computer where they could see, and said "They've just got to see this!"

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

"Hello, Emma? I'm calling about the birthday party?"

Maria has always loved to talk on the phone. Maybe it's because Dad works from home and did the majority of child care while she was little. She's heard him on the phone a lot. Her favorite 'toy' when she was a baby and toddler was her dad's phone. She'd carry the phone around the house and babble into it, having earnest conversations with herself. She got sophisticated enough with it that when she turned it on accidentally, she'd bring it back to Dad and let him turn it off for her. And she only called 911 once.

But we seem to have entered a completely new phase in terms of phone 'play'. She's begun to pretend to call her friends on the phone, and has amazingly sophisticated conversations, complete with appropriate pauses, intonation and hand gestures. (Yes, we all gesture while we talk on the phone.) I feel like time has been fast-forwarded and this is what she'll be doing in just a few short years, only with real friends. She's having amazingly sophisticated 'conversations' on the phone. (The names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

"Hello, Emma? I'm calling about the birthday party? (Pause)
Are you coming to my party today? (Pause)
That's great. We're having a bear cake and ice cream. (Pause).
Well, you're coming from the other side of the river, so you'll have to go over the bridge and then take the highway. (Pause).
And have you talked to Colin? Is he coming too?"

And then she'll go off and wrap 'presents' inside her blanket and ask us to come 'blow out' the pretend candles. And then open her presents.

I'm both amused and amazed at her conversations and scripts. It's not social behavior she's seen modeled by us very often. I don't talk on the phone much, and Dad talks for business. And yet somewhere, she's learned the scripts for this kind of phone conversation.

And in learning this kind of script, she's making important developments in her language. We all have scripts for the things that we do frequently, such as ride the bus, order food in a restaurant, buy and pay for groceries, playing board games, or other frequent activities. Having a script helps organize the events in our minds. For children, learning scripts is important for both language development and social interaction. The script can help them practice responses and become familiar with the language expected in different situations. Using scripted language helps your listener know you're on the same page, and smooths interactions as you go through your daily life.

But scripts can do more than that. They also make it possible for a child to expand and extend their language in new directions or to new levels of complexity. By using a "script" and repeating the same play scenarios over and over (sometimes much to a parent's distress), a child can hold the context of the conversation constant. Knowing the context and the flow of the play can free up attention to listen to what other people are saying, to formulate new sentences and to keep the interaction flowing.

So, the next time your child plays the same game for the umpteenth time, listen hard to the language they are using. You may find yourself surprised that while the game stays the same, the language does not.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Look mom, I'm hanging out!

Maria uttered this phrase several months ago. She was hanging by her arms off the back of the couch, and said, Look Mom! I'm hanging out! I laughed, which of course has made her repeat this phrase every time she does it! But more than just being amusing, it points to how some children learn words first and concepts later. It gets back to the age-old question: Which comes first, the idea or the word? Maria seems to do it both ways.

Most of the time, it seems that concepts and words are acquired closely together. Certainly that's been true for my kids. But Maria also sometimes clearly learns the word and then the concept. That's the case for the phrase 'hanging out'. But also for other words. She recently told me "My birthday is going to come once a month. No, once a week." I'm pretty sure she understands neither the concept of "once a" nor the time phrases "month" or "week". She was just trying out the words.

Time words in general seem to be an area where words seem to come before concepts. Like many children, Maria is having a hard time with time words because their reference changes depending on the day. Last week we were talking about an upcoming birthday party, and I said, "We're going to the party tomorrow." The next day, we got into the car to go to the party, and I said, "We're going to the party." Maria responded "No, that's TOMORROW!" After starting off with mind bending phrases such as: "Today is tomorrow" I realized it was much simpler to say "Well, the party is on Saturday, and today is Saturday. The party is today now." It made me realize how useful the names of the days of the week are. But, the concept is still fuzzy for Maria. Every once in a while at dinner, she will ask "Is today tomorrow?"

Numbers and the alphabet are another area where production seems to precede comprehension. I'll confess to not being terribly impressed by parents who tell me that their 2 year olds can recite their ABCs or count to 10 (or 20). Oh, sure, it's a nice thing to do, and it's a good start. But, that doesn't mean that the child understands what these represent. That understanding takes a lot longer.

Maria is just getting that understanding for numbers, known as one-to-one correspondence. Three months ago, she'd just put her finger on the objects and rattle off "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10" when we asked her how many things there were. She didn't "get" the idea that the numbers represented a set of things. They were just a list of what you said when people asked you to count. Staring in the last month or so, she will place her finger on whatever she's counting and say "1", then move her finger, and say "2", etc. And, as long as the items to be counted are reasonably aligned (and not more than 14) so she doesn't get confused, she'll be able to accurately count them. She's learned that each number represents one thing, and that you 'add' by going up in numbers. That's a huge leap forward in mental development and understanding of symbols.

We've yet to achieve that leap for letters. She can sing her ABCs quite nicely, and has been doing so since she was about 2. But she still doesn't get the link between the letter and the sound. She has the language down, just not the concept. Oh, she'll say things like "M" is for "Maria", but it's clear from other contexts that she doesn't understand what the means. For example, we have a placemat with the alphabet on it - each letter has an animal next to it that starts with that letter. So, A has an alligator, C a camel, etc. Last night, Maria cheerfully pointed to the M and said "M is for Gorilla!" and then to the H and said "H is for Donkey!" Her perception of the animals is more accurate than her perception of the sounds. That monkey does look like a gorilla. And the old nag of a horse does look a lot like a donkey.

So, which comes first, the concept or the word? It all depends on the concept and the word!

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.