Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Meaning of Mammoths

          Here’s a little domestic scene for you.

          A warm kitchen. The smell of baking. Sunlight spills through a window, lighting the bright scarlet petals of a potted geranium.

          In the centre of the room, a mother has fastened her small child into a high-chair so it can’t get away, while she croons to it. “Conjugate the irregular verb, to be. I am, you are, he is, she is, they are. How do we form the past tense? I was, you were, he was, she was, they were. And the future tense? I shall be – or should we use ‘will’? I will be, you will be, he will be…’

          This is how we all learned to speak our first language, isn’t it?

          Or try this.

          Mother (as she shows the child a banana): Do you want some banana? Do you? Banana? (Showing the banana again.) Banana. Mmm! (Pleased happy expression on her face, as she peels the banana.) Do you want a bite of banana? (Takes a bite of banana.) Mmm! Nice! Banana’s are nice! Do you want some? Do you want some? (Offering banana.)

          By the end of the meal, the child recognises the word, ‘banana’ and knows what object it is linked to. It also has an idea of what ‘want’ means.

          As far as I understand it (I don’t claim to be an expert) this is Functional Grammar in action. This is how we all learn our languages. (In exactly the same way my cat learned what the word 'brush' meant, after just two evenings, because he enjoyed being brushed so much. The word, the object and the experience united in his catty brain, never to be separated again.)

          Because language isn’t about rules of grammar. It isn’t about plu-perfects and subjunctives. It’s about communicating between members of a social group. At perhaps its simplest – but certainly not least important – level, its purpose is to enable a child to tell its mother it’s hungry.
          Language didn't evolve in classrooms, after all. It evolved on the savannah, and on the tundra. When it's cold and you're all hungry, it's vitally important to be able to tell your fellow gatherers exactly where that clump of reeds with the nutritious, starchy roots are to be found. And, when you're hunting a mammoth, who is pissed off, communicating the plan clearly to your fellow-hunters is more important than whether or not you split the infinitive.
          You might say that Traditional or Conventional Grammar is about proving how educated you are; and how well you've learned the rules - whereas language (and Functional Grammar) is about  meaning and communication. (Though the meaning it communicates may well be more than the sense of the words: social standing, for instance.)

          ‘Banana’ is a 'block of meaning.' In English, those sounds are attached to and signify a particular fruit.

          ‘Do you want’ is another block of meaning. It’s useful, because a great many other blocks of meaning can be clipped on to the end of it: an apple, a cup of tea, a sandwich, a pencil, a chair.

Do you want an apple?

                   a chair?

                           a cup of tea?

Mrs Price wants an apple

                       a chair

                                a cup of tea.

          In learning language in this way, the child is far from passive. It is not pinned in its high-chair (or behind a desk), memorising lists of vocabulary or learning rules about ‘describing words’ and ‘doing words’, because that's the task it's been given.
           The child doesn't even know it's learning. It is thoroughly engaged and involved in the world around it. The child wants that banana.  My cat really wanted to be brushed.

          The child learns because that’s what interested, curious intelligent creatures do – especially if there’s some kind of reward involved, such as food, praise or  respect.
          Learning, after all, is a survival trait.

          Introducing boredom to learning is like dosing someone with a tranquiliser and then expecting them to learn as well and as easily. 
          We’ve all experienced it: trying to complete a boring task is the mental equivalent of trying to shift a heavy weight or wade through deep mud. We do it, when we have to; but boredom isn't the best aid to learning.
          Adding confusion doesn’t improve matters.
‘This form of a verb is typically used for what is imagined, wished or possible. It is usually the same as the ordinary or indicative, except in the third person singular, where the normal –s ending is omitted. In English this form usually denotes a formal tone.’  OED.
          None of you, of course, fail to recognise the subjunctive from this description. (What I want to know is, once you've removed the 'imagined, wished or possible,' what's left?)
          More than one teacher of my acquaintance has told me that they’ve taught children who almost hear nothing from their families except, “Shut up,’ and ‘Get out my way.’ That's their vocabulary.
          Another told me, ‘The children I teach get everything and nothing from their parents – everything in the way of designer clothes and expensive gadgets, and nothing in the way of  attention or affection.” The vocabulary of these children is, 'Go away, I'm busy.'
          I count myself hugely lucky to be able to say of my parents that they gave me everything and nothing – everything in the way of attention and affection, and nothing in the way of designer clothes and expensive gadgets. 
          Lucky children like me rapidly acquire ‘blocks of meaning’, and rapidly learn how these blocks can be taken apart and fitted together with other blocks, because the child hears these blocks of meanings used around it all the time. It observes how the people around it respond to these sounds. Often the blocks of meaning are carefully demonstrated to the child, as when a parent shows the child a toy, names the toy, and asks if the child wants it. (‘Heres Teddy. Do you want Teddy? Would you like to play with Teddy?)
          The child finds that it can exert power over its surroundings and family by learning to ask for what it wants. The family reward the child by being pleased, and praising its efforts. 
          There may be some bargaining between the parent and child. ‘What’s the magic word? – Say ‘please’ first.’ – ‘If you’re good today, we may go to the park tomorrow.’
           They also teach the child that there are different ways of speaking - that 'I want' is good enough for Mum and Dad, but 'Please may I - ?' and 'Thank you,' must always be used with other people. The child may be told, 'That's a naughty word. Daddy and Mummy may say it when they're angry, but you must never say it.'
          This is not merely Mummy and Daddy being mealy-mouthed. This is Mummy and Daddy teaching their child that social communication has many variations, and you must often change your words to suit the context. An example: a man entering pub is greeted with a shout of, "You (Expletive deleted.") The shout may have come from an enemy or his greatest friend. The meaning is entirely dependent on context - and might not be acceptable anywhere other than the pub.
          The children we call 'bright' are often those children lucky enough to live in a stimulating environment, where there is a lot to interest them, and where their interest is rewarded and stimulated anew. ‘You like the cat?” says the parent. ‘Then let’s look at lions, tigers, leopards – let’s mention the Ancient Egyptions worshipping them – and let’s have a look at wolves and elephants for good measure.’
          It doesn’t really matter whether the child remembers all it's told – sufficient that it is interested, and finds learning to be a positive, rewarding experience that it will be eager to engage in again.

          But the question is, when you meet a bright, chattery child, who gleefully lectures you on dinosaurs or the habits of ants – is it because that child is ‘naturally’ more intelligent than its ‘duller’ neighbour who doesn’t even know what dinosaurs are?
          And if that's so, how do you explain that the child who can't remember anything taught in class, can effortlessly learn countless categories of Packemon creatures?
          Is the difference, perhaps, entirely due to the amount of encouragement and stimulus the child receives from its social group, whether that's its family or its peer-group in the playground?

          And what is the best way, in formal education, of teaching both these children to read, and speak another language?


          Blott is away for the next two weeks, sunning himself in Egypt.
          But here - to please Madwippet - is a clip of Functional Grammar in action. Betsy has mastered 300 words and their meanings!

     Betsy's owners, we're told, didn't initially try to train her. They found that she picked up the names of objects and associated them with the object simply by observation and repetition... It's estimated that she has the intelligence of, at least, a 2-year old child.

          And, if you're interested, you can find more about Functional Grammar, and teaching material here


madwippitt said...

Hurrah for the video! It's estimated that all dogs, not just Betsy, have the intelligence equivalent of a 2-3 year old child. Most owners don't (like some parents) spend much time in developing that intelligence though.
And did you know that someone has actually taught their dog to read? Yes, really. She thought it would be helpful for assistance dogs with blind owners for when they needed to know where toilets and exits were.
And of course, dogs are now doing a wonderful job as reading assistants in schools and libraries (well, those that still remain)
All true, I promise! Adds greatly to Grouch Marx's comment that 'Outside of a dog, a man's best friend is a book. Inside its too dark to read.'

Susan Price said...

Functional Grammar for dogs! I'm all for it! I've been convinced for ages that the intelligence of animals is akin to ours, and much higher than we - conveniently? - credit them with

Anonymous said...

Why not? Systemic Functional Linguistic theory (SFL) is all about meaning and communication and many animals can communicate in various ways. As I understand it, Noam Chomsky claimed that the language ability of humans was somehow uniquely coded in our human brains as a sort of physical proto-grammar, thereby distinguishing us from other living entities. Adherents of SFL theory, on the otherhand, mostly accept the expression of meaning and communication (i.e. language) in whole as it has evolved and would only apply any form of grammar it an attempt to analyse it. This has been done sucessfully using systemic functional grammar in research with bonobo apes for example.

Take the example of Bonobo 'Kanzi' - Extract from a powerpoint on the '' website:

* Using a keyboard that “spoke”, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh was trying to teach Matata, Kanzi’s 30 year old wild caught mother, WORDS.
* Then, so it was thought, Matata could do SENTENCES.
* But Matata didn’t like her WORD lessons and didn't learn WORDS much less do SENTENCES.
* Infant Kanzi was a pain in the neck. Always in the way.
* But when Mata was sent away Kanzi spontaneously used the keyboard to communicate with Sue!
* Sue said “Skip the grammar lessons. Give him a warm cultural context and the keyboard.” The rest is history.

Proof enough eh, for the 'top down' whole approach to literacy.

Or as German philosopher W. Van Humboult put it: "There are no single elements in language. Each of its elements presents itself as a part of a whole" (1820)

Or Michael Halliday (Father of SFL) : "Text is language ..... . It can be spoken or written. Text is not isolated words or sentences divorced from context.“ (1979)

Regards - Manxli

madwippitt said...

I've always said my dogs understand every word I say. Unlike a number of humans! And politer than most humans too - they don't answer back ...

But interesting, yes, that (humans) tend to assume that 'communication' needs to be based largely on language. Not true at all. Our 'dumb' friends are anything but.

Susan Price said...

An historic moment! I think I may have changed my mind!
I was very taken with the idea that 'language is hard-wired into the human brain.'
But now I think I'm convinced by the arguments of my psychology studying brother and my language teaching (and highly qualified) cousin (Manxli above). I like even more the idea that communication is a whole, embracing humans and animals. That makes so much sense.
And I agree, MadWippet. My cat and I certainly communicated, though without words. He was able to convey such complicated ideas to me as, 'I want you to lie down on the sofa, so I can lie in front of you and have my belly stroked.' He was patient with my slowness to understand, but firm.

=Tamar said...

"the subjunctive ...(What I want to know is, once you've removed the 'imagined, wished or possible,' what's left?)"
That's easy. As I learned from learning spoken English from my parents, the subjunctive _only_ deals with things that are not actually true at the moment. So what's left is what is real.

The use of some kind of language is hard-wired; deaf children have invented their own gesture languages. The specifics of language are less firmly wired. Facial expressions, for instance, include both simple hard-wired ones and more complex ones that are learned as a part of language.

On the other hand, animal language could includes elements that humans rarely use, such as the smell of changes in blood sugar. There's no need to bark "I'm hungry" when your companions can smell it!

Susan Price said...

Some fascinating points, Tamar - thank you! I especially liked what you say about animal languages including smell. We are very visual creatures, aren't we?
Very interested in your explanation of the subjunctive too, but still puzzled. Surely 'the possible' is what's real, even if it's not real right at that moment. I mean, I can plan to have roast unicorn haunch for dinner, or venison, which I would like but don't actually have - or a jacket potato, which I do have and could easily put in the oven now to eat in a couple of hour's time.

=Tamar said...

The subjunctive is what isn't real right now. "If I were you" indicates that I am not you and never will be, but "If I were to do [x]" indicates something that is not true right now but might be true if I made that choice.