A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Thursday, September 28, 2006 :::
One often gets the feeling that more care should be given in handing out research grants.

This thought returned while reading several notices of a book that purports to explain why your child comes up with strange sentences while learning to talk. He is not making errors, the author insists. He is trying out the grammars of various languages. He wants to see if you will respond if he uses English words with Chinese syntax.

This theory has delighted people who get all warm and fuzzy when another culture—any other culture--gets mentioned. It provides the opportunity to prove once again that they are not restricted by their silly old Anglo-Saxon culture. Oh, some writers squealed, our children are naturally multicultural. Here is a nice positive something or other to be nurtured, and these precious youngsters can be raised free of socially constructed fetters.

Now, A Mind That Suits would not want to enter fully into a battle best left to the pros, many of whom have pounced and shown little mercy.

But a few thoughts do enter the head if one has spent time with people who speak other languages or come from other cultures. (Those two often amount to the same thing.)

The first is that children are hardly the world’s biggest fans of altering social customs. What does a child most often do when put into a new situation, particularly if he senses Mommy is about to depart? Cry, of course. And while children might calmly play with a new child without noticing his or her skin color, anything the other child might do that seems odd often unleashes more tears, or a slap. Sandbox social stratification is—and anyone can remember this—far more vicious than that experienced at a cocktail buffet during New York’s Fashion Week.

The second is that children are hardly the world’s biggest fans of being misunderstood. They get impatient if Mommy doesn’t understand (more tears, of course), or visibly look perplexed as they try to sort out what they are saying wrong. And wrong is the word, contra our author’s assertion that he is just experimenting freely.

Linguists tell us that any language needs to have certain kinds of words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions. A child will assign his own names to the restricted number of things he considers important, and most mothers seem to pick up on these otherwise unintelligible outbursts. But the mother intuits when the child can learn more, and immediately begins teaching him the words.

Soon enough, he figures out there are things and there are actions and there are descriptions. He learns the name of things by pointing. He learns things such as adverbs by listening. “Slower” he no doubt picks up because once children can walk they insist on running, which they can’t do very well, and so break things, including themselves. “Faster” he probably learns from his mother’s assurance to relatives that he, the child, is developing so much faster than is normal for his age. It’s what the pediatrician told her. The first preposition is probably “away” or “off.”

Now if you take a child’s first likely full sentence—“I want milk”—there are only so many ways to arrange the sentence. “I want milk.” “Milk want I.” “Want milk I.” “Want I milk.” “I milk want.” “Milk I want.” 6 all told. English uses the first, Italian almost all of them, Japanese the fifth, and Yoda the last.

Any child will try all six, and the one that gets him what he wants is the one he will use, period. And the one that gets him what he wants is what his parents will accept. Yes, it is of course socially conditioned. All of life is.

It is utterly remarkable that the human mind can accommodate any language, and so your child could learn Chinese just as easily as he is learning English, provided you spoke Chinese at home. But, contra the multi-culti squealers, it would not be great if he walked around using every available grammar all the time. He must learn to connect to people, or he will live alone. To connect to other people, he must use the language used by others around him, and in ways that they recognize as “correct.”

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 1:51 PM



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What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

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