Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Language and Learning

Language and Learning

2006 August 2 Wednesday

By e-mail I received some practical advice on getting round the short-term memory problem caused by brain damage.

The suggestion was to try chunking, a word I seem to recall having seen around, but, nevertheless, a word which, up until now, meant nothing to me.

The example of chunking given by my anonymous informant is as follows:

"For numbers, this is often done by dealing with pairs: 43, 23, 52, 12 vs. 4, 3, 2, 3, 5, 2, 1, 2."

Inspired by this idea, I thought I would try the following: try to read a four-digit number such as "9876" as "ninety-nine, eighty-eight, seventy-seven, sixty-six."

Or just try the chunking idea as given, "98/76."

The impulse to improve on anything that comes my way is not necessarily a laudable one. Better to first try the tool on offer before trying to mess around tweaking it.

Certainly I want to fix this short-term memorization problem if I can, because I had one day when a four-digit number kept twisting in my mind, morphing from 9876 to 8976 to 9976. Visual acuity was not the problem. I could see the number easily enough on the computer printout which I needed to consult, but I could not simultaneously read the printout and search for the file I needed.

More significantly, the e-mail gives me the notion that there are strategies for dealing with brain damage, which was something I had not really considered before.

Except that I do try to do things in the same order each day, so I don't lose track of things. But this only works up to a point.

The same anonymous e-mail which brought me the very welcome chunking suggestion disputed my contention that the word "every" must necessarily be plural. My correspondent gave the following "single case" example:

"If I have swum once without drowning, then every time I've swum, it has been without drowning."

I personally remain convinced that this is not sayable. And, even if you can find a grammar book which permits it, I don't think it would be appropriate to teach a language student that "every" can mean "one," because under ordinary circumstances a native speaker of English would take "every" to mean more than one.

In an effort to get hold of a definition more authoritative than that provided by Microsoft's dictionary, I hauled out my copy of THE AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY, and the first meaning was given as follows:

"Constituting each and all members of a group without exception."

My feeling is that "each and all" cannot be traduced into meaning "one and only one."

I was a little surprised that my correspondent had, apparently, read as far as he or she appeared to have done, since the "every" argument features toward the end of a blog entry running to more than 4,000 words, and I thought maybe nobody would read that far into the entry.

An English-teacherly argument over the permissible meanings of "every" is interesting to me because I am an English teacher, but I find it hard to imagine anyone else being interested.

English is often in my thoughts because I get English-language questions both at work and at home. My wife used the expression osorobeshi of Cornucopia, who had sussed out exactly what bottle was used to fill the bubble pipe's bubble container. I glossed this as "mind-boggling," upon which my wife, very naturally, asked me what "boggling" might be. I was hard put to come up with an answer. I think I flubbed that one.

Another language that I've focused on recently is French. I spend ten minutes a day pushing Cornucopia in the push chair all the way to the hoikuen, the daycare center, because I won't let her walk since we cross a couple of roads, one of which is considerably dangerous.

I need songs to sing en route, and usually start out with the one which commences "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go."

Lately I've added the MARSEILLAISE, but my version is horribly garbled, and starts "A la defense a la patrie," whereas, when I went on line and downloaded a copy of the actual lyrics, I found that the MARSEILLAISE really starts "Allons enfants de la patrie."

Once I had the lyrics I tried to sing them, but realized that I was uncertain about a chunk of the melody, so I did a Google search for "marseilles free download mp3". But I clicked my way through a bunch of sites only to be thwarted because the sites were telling lies.

I clicked on one button which told me, clearly and without ambiguity, that I could click to download an mp3 copy of the MARSEILLAISE, but, instead, I clicked through to someone's wretched search engine, a competitor for Google.

Deliberately engineering lies makes it all the more difficult to find stuff on the Internet, and I think it would be appropriate for governments around the world to start catching a few of the perpetrators and start skinning them alive to discourage the practice of offering things which you do not really have to give.

I though there had to be a smarter animal approach to the problem of finding a site which really did have an mp3 copy of the MARSEILLAISE, so I did an advanced Google search for MARSEILLAISE with the stipulation that the search must include ".mp3," with a period in front of the letters "mp3."

My thesis was that specifying the period would produce a search which would include a link to an actual mp3 file, since ".mp3," rather than periodless "mp3," is the file suffix.

And so, happily, it proved, and soon I was the proud owner of two copies of the MARSEILLAISE, one an mp3 version of an arrangement by Berlioz, a bit jumpy but still workable, and the other a WAV file, which had quite a bit of hiss on it, sounding like somone's old LP, which perhaps it was.

[Later: thinking back to how I searched for mp3s and finding that I don't really remember clearly, I am no longer sure that specifying a search for ".mp3" was the trick. I would have to revisit this to be sure. 0235 and I am sleepless but won't make myself popular if I wake my wife and daughter while fumbling around in the darkness in the upstairs bedroom while trying to plug in the wi-fi Internet connection.]

[Awake at 0235 through no fault of my own since I have been trying to get to sleep, trying with religious intensity, but failing.]

The music files that I did successfully find were found at:


I then realized that doing searches including ".mp3" was probably an easy way to locate a whole bunch of downloadable mp3s on the Internet, though I did not immediately have the free time to start surfing around for extra music.

One thing that keeps me busy is the osorobeshi daughter, who occupies my time through from when I wake up in the morning until when I get on the slow train to Minamisenju at about 0905. (Earlier, I wrote "Kitasenju," but that was an error, and the train actually goes to Minamisenju, which is pretty much the same place, way over on the far side of Tokyo.)

Usually, in the morning, after my wife has departed for work, Cornucopia has me read one or two books. Then the daily episode of the NHK television novel comes on at 0815, and that is when I go upstairs to get dressed for work.

One morning, however, the osorobeshi daughter came to me demanding "Bubbles!" I told her I didn't know where the bubbles were, so she led me into the bathroom and pointed. I lifted her up to the level of the top of the washing machine (which is in the foyer of the bathroom) and she pointed out the bottle containing the fluid for blowing bubbles. (I've made the bubble pipes work with ordinary household detergent, but the special bubble-blowing fluid is better.)

However, despite being osorobeshi, incredible (or, if you prefer, mind-boggling) in her grip on what's going on, she didn't know where the bubble pipes were. Later, I had my wife show me where the pipes are. I don't have much free time to spend with Cornucopia in the morning, but, after cleaning away her mess, washing the few dishes left over from breakfast, finishing my muesli and eating a slice of toast, I have about fifteen minutes spare for Cornucopia.

Time enough for us to do bubbles, if that's what she wants to do.

What she likes doing is, rather than blowing her own bubbles, catching mine. This is a negative for me, because, after all, these are MY bubbles that I blew, so I compensate by standing up, so my bubbles are permitted a proper span of existence before they fall to the manic applause of Cornucopia's gleeful destruction, the bubbles being clapped into extinction.

Mornings, Cornucopia is typically cheerful as we set off for the daycare center, but is usually reluctant to enter the final portal, and has to be bodily picked up and carried inside.

On my arrival late in the afternoon, typically about 1755, she usually greets me with manic glee. Sometimes she runs around in the sandpit playground, sits on the concrete dinosaur (at least, I think it's a dinosaur, but perhaps it's intended to be a non-specific generic monster) and slides down the elephant slide.

On the occasion of one afternoon pickup, when the rainy season was still in full swing, I had the rain cover tucked into the mesh compartment under the push chair seat, since it was not actually raining. Cornucopia started nosing around the compartment, which, when we go out for walks, usually contains her drinking water.

"Water?" she asked, in English, with obvious anxiety.

I carry around a 500 milliliter bottle of water in my pack so I handed it to her and she drank most of it. My wife has taken to urging her, at breakfast time each morning, to be sure to ask the daycare teachers for water.

Although Cornucopia knows the Japanese word for water, "mizu," and usually uses it at home, when she got anxious for liquid it was, as I have noted, the English word "water" that she used.

Her English vocabulary is increasing, and she shows an incredible facility for language acquisition on the listen-and-repeat level.

In the mornings, after we go outside, I routinely ask "Do you want to be carried?" Her standard reply is something like "You want to be carried." Never "I want to be carried."

I have only once ever heard Cornucopia use the standard Japanese pronoun for "I," which is "watashi." As I think I've noted elsewhere, she generally refers to herself by name, as Cornucopia, rather than as "I."

One thing my Japanese students of English are often weak at is switching between "you" and "I" when required. Often their mismanagement of the pronoun situation is on Cornucopia's level.

It's my belief that this is because pronouns are not used as often in Japanese as in English. For example, if I was talking with Mr Tanaka in English, it would be natural to refer to him as "you," but, in Japanese, it would be more natural to refer to him as "Tanaka-san." Similarly, if I was speaking to my doctor, it would be more natural to use the honorific term "sensei" rather than "you."

At the moment I can't tell whether Cornucopia's mismanagement of pronouns is because of the fact that her language development is still at infant level, or whether her English is being dominated by her primary language which, indubitably, is Japanese.

It will be interesting to see how Cornucopia's use of pronouns develops in the month ahead.

Most of Cornucopia's linguistic inputs come from her hours at the daycare center. One day she started ululating like a cannibal savage on the warpath, so my wife asked, "Who taught you that?"

"Mai-chan," came the answer, meaning "Mai the Cute."

Who is cute, dressed up in the crash helmet that she wears when leaving the daycare center, because her mother takes her home by bicycle. As manic as Cornucopia.

While Cornucopia is mostly being exposed to Japanese, she does pick up on our conversation at home. And, recently, my wife came home with five videos which someone had placed on the recycling shelves at the local library, where you can get free books and videos which other patrons have abandoned.

These five videos are in the KIDDY CAT series, made in Japan but with American child actors speaking authentic American accents. They're a bit short and, as a rule, the episodes don't have much in the way of a plot, but the price is right.

And, thanks to these videos, my daughter has the opportunity of learning useful vocabulary items such as "vampire," "werewolf" and "witch," linguistic acquisitions which, I am sure, will be very useful to her in her future life as CEO of Transinternational Seals Unlimited.

I don't know when Cornucopia started getting into seals, but sticking seals on things has become a routine part of her life. I never noticed the existence of seals before I became a parent, but they're freely available in both New Zealand and Japan, cheap fun for kids as long as you don't mind seals being stuck all over the place.

Recently I realized that there are little seals on the oranges we get from the supermarket, so Cornucopia has added picking the seal off the orange to her daily routines.

Final note on osorobeshi: my spell-checker hit this word and suggested the alternative spelling "isotopes".

Wednesday, at work, I practiced chunking, to see how it affected my ability to hold four-digit numbers in my head. As far as I could tell, it seemed to improve things, but it was difficult to judge since, given that I had slept for barely two hours, I was mostly non-functional.

Still, I got through the day, and, at the end of the working day, finished off the last of the three sets of compulsory homework which the company had lumbered me with, including the piece in which I ended up denouncing one of the questions as being written in error, the one which equated "every time" to "one previous time".

So it will be interesting to see how my trainer, manager Marcus, responds to that one.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't be surprised people read all of your blog entries Hugh, they are always interesting :)

A stranger who reads your blog.

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Hmm ... a mysterious stranger reading your blog?

10:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't know "watashi" meant "I"... Is this why you gave one of your most self-centered and self-aggrandzing heroes, Sarazin Skye, the battle-alias watashi?

It's ironic that he would try to unify people in chanting the Japanese word for "I"...

There's no "Watashi" in T-E-A-M...

Also, we all read your entries the whole way through... You are definitely still the smartest guy in the room...

4:15 AM  

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