Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

LSA 2007: Elementary School Linguistics

Posted by Neal on January 15, 2007

“Before we start,” I said, “I need to make sure I know what language you guys speak.”

“English!” they said.

“Ah, good! That’s what I speak, too. So Mrs. K,” I said, turning to Adam’s teacher, “Do they speak English pretty well?” She said they did. “OK,” I said. “Let me try a little test. See Mrs. K. here? Could I say, ‘Mat the on Mrs. K. sitting is’?”

I called on one of Adam’s classmates. “Jenny, is that good English? ‘Mat the on Mrs. K. sitting is’?”

“No,” Jenny said.

“It’s not? Then how would you say it?”

“Mrs. K. is sitting on the mat.”

“Really? How about the rest of you? Who would say ‘Mrs. K. is sitting on the mat’?” Most of the hands went up. (Well, more accurately, most of half of the hands went up.) “And would anyone say, ‘Mat the on Mrs. K. sitting is’?” None of them would.

“What? Why not? It’s the same words!”

“It’s the wrong order!” one or two of them said.

“Who told you that? James, did Mrs. K. tell you that it’s ‘on the mat’, not ‘mat the on’? No? Carly, did your mom tell you it’s ‘is sitting’ and not ‘sitting is?’ She didn’t? Then how did you know?”

“It just sounds right,” she said.

Anaheim, California, 6 days earlier:
Mark Liberman delivers his plenary talk at the LSA convention, a talk he’s delivered in other places, whose abstract he posted here. It was an inspiring talk about how to make linguistics more relevant to undergraduate students, and the population at large. There were a lot of comments afterward (including one from Semantic Compositions on linguists working outside academia), but one in particular prompted me to action. Abby Cohn advised getting kids interested in linguistics as young as possible, something she was doing at her daughter’s elementary school. The school was always wanting parents to volunteer, so when they asked her, she agreed, but said she didn’t want to spend all her volunteer time punching holes and laminating stuff. So now, a few times a year, she’ll do linguistics presentations to the kids at the school.

Whoa, what a great idea! I thought. Heck, I could do that right now; I already volunteer every Friday at Doug and Adam’s school, and the teachers already know I do linguistics. All this was running through my head while Cohn was speaking, and when she was done, I applauded. Others must have been impressed, too, because the whole room applauded, something that didn’t happen for any other commenter. Well, maybe for one other one. One woman was inspired to announce a meeting after the talk for people who wanted to do some linguistics promotion at the undergraduate level, and there seemed to be widespread rumblings of approval for that.

So anyway, when I picked up Adam on Monday, I ran the idea by Adam’s teacher of doing a language presentation to the class. To the extent that it meshed with the standards she had to teach, of course. Her question: Could I do it for the afternoon class, too, and could the other kindergarten teacher bring in her class so I could present it to them all? No problem, I said, and last Friday I did my first (and I hope not only) elementary-school linguistics presentation.

After showing the kids that they already knew some stuff about English syntax without having been taught it, I spent the rest of the time showing them what they already knew about English phonotactics. I had laminated some 4″x5″ sheets of construction paper with various consonants written on them (including ng, sh, and th), and I had the kids come up two at a time. Each would draw one of the cards, and show the letter to the class. They’d shout out the sound it represented, and then I’d pronounce the sounds as a cluster (in both orders), asking if any English words started with those sounds. Mrs. K. would write down the cluster on either the YES or the NO side of her big tablet.

As the NO list grew longer, the suspense mounted as we wondered when we’d find a cluster that was actually OK for starting an English word. We ran out of time before we had very many in the YES column, but we did get , , and (once someone got the s, I held it constant and just grabbed the other letters myself), and Mrs. K. added and to the list just to show they didn’t all have to start with s. I wrapped up by reminding them that they were able to say yes or no without anyone ever teaching them; it was something they already knew about their language.

All in all, it went pretty well for a first-time presentation. I did make one improvement between the morning and the afternoon classes, though: When I asked for a judgment on whether something was possible for English, I asked only one kid at a time, instead of asking for a show of hands. You get a much cleaner yes-or-no answer that way.

3 Responses to “LSA 2007: Elementary School Linguistics”

  1. I passed through here yesterday and mused on the possibilities in my own daughter’s elementary school (she’s in Grade One up here in Kingston, Ontario). . . My degree is in English, and while I teach Renaissance Poetry, my research is on the first elementary pedagogy developed to teach English in the sixteenth century. You’d be surprised how much has been retained since then.

    Anyhoo, tonight I’m going over my daughter’s homework (which makes me sound much more “on top of things” than I really am), and lo and behold, there’s an exercise in here called “Tangled Sentences”:

    1. nice I things. have


    2. funny this Is story? a


    You get the idea. Turns out my daughter loves the activity — did you find your “students” did? It’s as if they discover a secret power they didn’t know they had.

    Meanwhile, my son has a language disorder whereby he hasn’t internalized the secret powers of syntax (among other things). . . For someone as linguistically attuned as I am, it’s been a real education.

    Will continue to think about other possibilities for elementary seminars, and check in here. I think it’s a terrific idea.

  2. Uly said

    This is the coolest thing I’ve read all week.

  3. […] Several interesting posts from Literal Minded by Neal Whitman on teaching elementary school students linguistics. Excerpt:  […]

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