Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Kids talking

I was talking with one of my neighbours today, and she mentioned that the kids she teaches music to are displaying a change in their Catalan that is very very recent, no more than five years old.

Now, before I tell that story, I want to tell you another story, a true one...I do not have the book here with me, so forgive me if I get some of the facts wrong. First of all, children have an astonishing facility for language, it is inborn and amazing. Anyone struggling to learn the complexities of a foreign grammar will relate to this as they grind their teeth to the gums when listening to two year olds using the complex grammatical structures that they are attempting to pound into their aging and thickened skulls with adorable lisping perfection.

What is more amazing though is that children's facility for language is not purely imitative. There was a group of children, and I am going to get this country wrong but I believe it was in Nicaragua, who were deaf. Indeed there were quite a few deaf children in this country, most of them living singly as the only hearing impaired person in their village. They had developed some rudimentary signs, but were effectively devoid of language, and certainly devoid of any concept of grammatical or syntactical structures. These cannot be learned after a certain age, as numerous tragic cases have illustrated.

ANYwhooo, the nations government decided that it would be a good idea to provide some kind of education for these kids, so they set up a school, and brought in all, or many of the kids, from very little ones of three or four right on up to teenagers. I am pretty certain it must have been a boarding school. Now, there were no sign langauge speakers or teachers at the school. The oldest kids got together and kind of pooled their signs and came up with some basic words, but these were choppy and limited primarily to nouns and verbs, with some finger spelling and pointing.

The little ones, and this is absolutely amazing, the little ones however got talking.


They got together, without a single adult signer and made a language. Grammar, syntax, rules and systems, declinations, prepositions, the works, all in sign.

The invented the grammar, the syntax and vastly expanded the vocab. The older kids started learning from them, and the adults too. So strong is the human drive and facility for grammar, that we can in fact create it out of a vacuum, well, little kids can.

Mind blowing isn't it. The oldest kids never got good at it, they were past the age where their brains were sufficiently plastic and could not adapt, like any adult learner of a second language, and indeed they would have been somewhat worse off than a foreign language speaker as they do not even have the concept of grammar to misunderstand.

What the local Catalan kids are doing is neat, and along the same lines, though not so mind-bendingly out there.

They have created a new verb. Nothing all that new to it you say, we do that in English all the time. For instance we use the verb 'to click', as in: click on that window....or, he is clicking and clicking but nothing is happening, I think the screen is frozen.

This is done in English ALL THE TIME; anyone who has learned the language can certainly attest to it.

What I find kind of neat here though is that it is ONLY the smaller kids that are doing this trick with this new verb; they have adopted the word click, which is used in Catalan as a verb by everyone, the same as in English, but they have applied it universally to anything that you change with the touch of a single digit. For instance they now click the lights, and they click the elevator buttons.

The adults are confused and surprised when they hear the kids using the verb, which they have accurately conjugated (no easy thing), and then adopt it themselves. Not as universally as the kids, but they are using it too. It will be interesting to see if the original words for turning on a light and pushing a button die out. I hope not, that seems like an impoverishing move.

Kids sure can work a language though, can't they.


Beth said...

they can work it like crazy!!! and come up with crazy new words that make it into the actual dictionary!!!

here's the recipe for you I promised:

1 frozen pound cake, cut length wise into 3 layers

2 boxes instant vanilla pudding
1 1/2 cups milk
mix this together for a few minutes until thick then add

1 container of cool whip
fold into pudding

1 lb. strawberries, sliced

(Now, in the original recipe, you're supposed to brush the layers of pound cake with un-diluted frozen orange juice, but I left this out. I thought it was too bitter and kind of ruined the whole thing. )

put down a layer of cake, a layer of strawberries and a layer of pudding/cool whip, and repeat. EASY!

But I think if you wanted to make it a little less "dry" you could put down a layer of plain vanilla pudding, THEN the strawberries THEN the pudding/cool whip mixture. I think it would be even better!!!

elPadawan said...

Reminds me that I always regretted never learning vietnamese as a kid... Part of my inheritance that I'd like to catch up with.

Lynda said...

Fab post, very interesting
As a parent raising bi-lingual children I have spent many hours pouring over books that will give me an edge... Watching miss 6 slip into beautiful German the minute she sets foot on German soil (but will not speak a word otherwise) and now she is playing piano, learning so fast... fab
Mind you, I get frustrated watching trash german telly now because they use so many English words - just tucked in between the german sentence structure. Even my 81 year old mother in law does it... drives me batty!

oreneta said...

Beth, yes indeed, then there is teenager language isn't there another world of it's own...that recipe...that looks awesome and SO SO SO easy! I dont think I can get cool whip here though...I'll have to do some thinking...do you think that canned whip-cream would work as well? I don't have a blender, and I have whipped cream by hand, and I frankly don't want to do it again.

elPadawan, there's lots of time, no? Did your folks speak Vietnamese at home or no?

Lulu, the Germans do that do they? Not the Spanish, the level of English knowledge is so low here they would all be completely lost. It is amazing what little kids can do, I have already had that immigrant parent moment when you get your small child to handle conversations for you because you just don't understand what the heck the person is saying. So funny.

Beth said...

Do you remember the name of that book? Such a fascinating story - I'd love to read it.

oreneta said...

Whew, Beth it is sited in a number of places...Oliver Sacks, if you've never read him has one book that looks exclusively at the world of the deaf, though he is brilliant all around...I believe it was called seeing voices, but reading any of his work is fascinating...it may also have come from "What's going on in there" by Lise Eliot, though this is less likely. Eliot's book is nonetheless fascinating, she is a neuroscientist and a Mom, and she is looking at the latest (at the time pf publication) findings on the development of the brain in very young children, up to about 6...it is an absolutely breathtaking read, and while there are patches that are heavily scientific, those sections are written well, and the book as a whole is quite readable. Highly recommended. I may have to look up the source for the group deaf kids making language...once I am back in TO. Something is still tickling the back of my head, so I may come back to you on this.

Wait and see.

Beth said...

Thanks! (I copy and pasted your entire answer!)

dawn said...

That is very interesting and so true of kids. My Aunt came from Poland to marry my uncle. There son was 4 and spoke English, Polish and Ukrainian fluently (as a 4 year old would) and would translate English for his mom when she would talk to my mom. My aunt can communicate pretty good now after 30 years, but she still has her daughters (adults) give her the word she is looking for, sometimes.

Another thing you can do with the trifle above is add a package of mixed cool, but not gelled Jello to the bottom layer with the cake and some strawberries. Then chill, add the pudding layer, then a whip cream layer. That is how my MIL used to make it all the time.