Ktismatics

17 September 2007

It Just Sounds Right

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 7:17 am

Linguistic structuralism seems so foreign to us Americans because of the way we learn our own language. Every child in every culture learns to speak mostly through participation in a language-speaking community. Words and grammatical rules aren’t defined; they’re just used in conversation. Gradually we become skillful at understanding what others intend to say to us and at making our own intentions understood. By the time children start school they’re already advanced language-users.

In school children speak and listen, just like they do outside of school. They also learn to read and write, activities in which they may or may not engage at home. Written communication builds on the foundation of oral communication: the same words pointing to the same things, the same techniques for stringing words together.

By and large American school kids learn to read by reading, learn to write by writing. Though it’s called “grammar school,” teachers of young children don’t really spend much time teaching grammar explicitly. Eventually kids learn to construct phrases like “by lunchtime I will have been sitting at this desk for four hours.” What convoluted verb tense is this? Who knows? But we all know what it means; we can even use this strange construction in everyday conversation. And we can tell when it’s said wrong. “By lunchtime I will be sitting at this desk for four hours.” Wrong. “By lunchtime I have sat…” Wrong. Why wrong? I don’t know; it just doesn’t sound right.

Contrast this pragmatic American approach with French pedagogy. “Will have been sitting”: I’m sure French kids are taught the name of this particular verb tense and how it is conjugated for regular and irregular -er, -ir, and -re verbs. What is the conjugation of the past imperfect in English? Are there regular and irregular verbs in English? French kids would probably have a better idea even about English than Americans do. French teachers drill their students relentlessly on the rules of their own language, forcing them to become aware of why some constructions “just sound right” while others do not. American teachers are content to know that the kids can understand what they read and can write a short coherent essay about it. Corrections are made, and kids gradually improve their skills. But the rules of the game are rarely made explicit: you just learn to play the game.

When I’ve described this difference in American teaching and learning styles to French parents, their first response is: “French is a more complex language than English.” I’m not sure whether they really believe it or not. I suspect that, since all French adults were taught the forms and logic of the French language as children, they cannot imagine having mastered the practical skills of reading and writing without mastering simultaneously the formal and structural features of the language itself.

This emphasis on structure seems to extend to other aspects of schooling. French kids memorize the names of the countries of Europe, the names of their capital cities, and where they appear on the map. American kids learn how to use maps to find what they’re looking for. French kids learn the right answers; American kids learn how to make an educated guess. Even governments and social classes and economic systems: for French kids it’s what these things are; for Americans it’s how they work — or, better, how you work them, how you play them.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that most Europeans’ educational experiences more closely resemble the French model than the American. England probably falls somewhere in between, though I suspect the English would say they excel at both.

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29 Comments »

  1. There is supposed to be a difference between more Northwestern Europe and Southeastern Europe in reproductive style of teaching. In the Netherlands there is a split between primary school and secondary school. At primary school, some schools give very little explanation about grammar. At secondary, the grammar book is used from week one until the end.
    I’ve actually learned French grammar and some English too, it is somewhere in my mind but not in the conscious zone. Heaps of irregular verbs and how to write families of words. All shuffled aside to make space for my new interests.
    I often think that the rules are very arbitrary and I felt that they were constructed afterwards, more as a mnemonic device.

    I know structuralism in maths from school and in maths I think it makes real sense.

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    Comment by Odile — 17 September 2007 @ 11:42 am

  2. Memorisation is really big in schools in India. I constantly find myself amazed by the amount and complexity of the stuff that has to be word perfect. i am also surprised by the lack of any real attempt to help the children understand the concepts and principles. You can get published books of ‘notes’ for almost any subject that once memorised will get one through the exams.

    As Odile notes, the exception is mathematics and here invariably parents will put their children into a separate tuition center to be drilled in working sums.

    I found that reading, as opposed to conversation, was what helped me to figure out a lot of stuff about how English ‘works’ . The feeling that this sounds right while that’s wrong, I think was more honed by much reading.

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    Comment by samlcarr — 17 September 2007 @ 11:59 am

  3. I never thought much of memorization until I tried to memorize along with our daughter some of her history lesson in France. While not the way I would prefer to remember the lesson (which would have been integration of the new material with what I already knew), I found that I did pay attention to the details more, and I watched the grammar while learning the content.

    The real test, though, is that I don’t even remember the context now. It’s all long forgotten from my memory.

    Meilleurs voeux!!

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    Comment by blueVicar — 17 September 2007 @ 12:17 pm

  4. You watched the Denver-Oakland game, didn’t you?…and you were stuck there till the end because it was exciting. That 2 field goals thing is the kind of crap that happens to a team with bad luck!

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 September 2007 @ 12:21 pm

  5. “I often think that the rules are very arbitrary and I felt that they were constructed afterwards, more as a mnemonic device.”

    That’s Tomasello’s argument as well. Our daughter is learning Spanish, and the other day her homework assignment was to decide when to use “para” or “por,” both of which are translated as “for” in English. The Spanish book provided a list of rules for deciding which to use in which situation, but it was all very abstract and complicated. We were sure that Spanish children didn’t learn the right usage via the rules; that for them it “just sounds right” to do it correctly, and that the rules were invented later to try to make rational sense of what had emerged as customary usage.

    “I know structuralism in maths from school and in maths I think it makes real sense.”

    Math skill almost surely doesn’t require a separate brain module, since not all cultures use anything beyond very rudimentary arithmetic. Also, most kids don’t just learn math in the same way they learn to speak; i.e., through spontaneous interaction with their parents and peers. Math probably began as a more formally structured discipline consciously invented by adults. Still, even in math American teachers often assign math problems without teaching the appropriate algorithm, and the kid is expected to figure out a reasonable guess about the answer; e.g., whether it’s probably closer to 100 or 1000. Our daughter found this skill helpful in France when some new lesson was assigned, before she or her classmates had mastered the algorithm.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 September 2007 @ 12:28 pm

  6. “I found that reading, as opposed to conversation, was what helped me to figure out a lot of stuff about how English ‘works’ . The feeling that this sounds right while that’s wrong, I think was more honed by much reading.”

    I expect that’s partly because ordinary conversation isn’t as complex as written textual structures. Plus I suppose you get to look at the examples more carefully, whereas conversation just zips past without a chance to process it.

    Did you learn English as a second language, Sam? At what age? I wonder whether Americans are poor at learning second languages because they haven’t learned the structural properties of their own language. Or is it just the arrogance and geographic isolation?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 September 2007 @ 12:31 pm

  7. Math probably began as a more formally structured discipline consciously invented by adults.

    Are you thinking of the “beginnings” of modern “math” or of like Pythagorean “demonstrations”?

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 September 2007 @ 12:31 pm

  8. “I never thought much of memorization until I tried to memorize along with our daughter some of her history lesson in France.”

    We’re good at memorizing lyrics to rock and pop songs, which tend to stick around in memory forever. Still it requires context: I can’t usually get very far with the lyrics unless the song is actually playing. I wonder if memorization is getting even less emphasis in America than when we were in school; e.g., K’s not knowing the words to the National Anthem.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 September 2007 @ 12:34 pm

  9. “That 2 field goals thing is the kind of crap that happens to a team with bad luck!”

    Don’t tell anybody, but I was kind of hoping that Oakland would win. That Polish dude’s kick would have been good from about 70 yards if the placement had been just a little better.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 September 2007 @ 12:36 pm

  10. We’re good at memorizing lyrics to rock and pop songs, which tend to stick around in memory forever.

    And Jewish kids learn the Hebrew scriptures in musical form. I’m assuming that’s the way it was done back in the day, too…for the most part, at least. I think that’s reather telling, actually. Somehow I connect in my head the loss of music in relation to these “rules” (like in structuralism) with modern secularization. I think its because “eurythmia” is “cosmological”, whereas modern French is more like a mechanical process.

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 September 2007 @ 12:38 pm

  11. That kicker is a big dude. But yeah…BOTH kicks would might have sailed out of the freakin’ stadium if not for the net. Why Oakland? You don’t like the orange/blue color combo? :)

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 September 2007 @ 12:40 pm

  12. FYI I commented at “Freudian Slips” earlier, but then your page blew up and there’ve been about 20 comments since then, so I don’t think you noticed in your “recent comments” column…either that or you’re choosing not to respond, which is fine…I just wanted to let you know…

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 September 2007 @ 12:42 pm

  13. I think Tomasello is probably right as my experience was that I grew up with English as a first language but as all the Kenyan’s around us spoke Swahili, I was fluent at that too and no one really knows how I picked it up, and then my parents often spoke Tamil between themselves but never to me except that I got some of the swear words down pretty well as these were the only words that were consistently used on me. After 20 years when I did finally get to India, I found that i still knew the words for ‘donkey’, and ‘irritating devil’, but nothing else.

    There was little formal teaching involved before going to school but the languages came naturally.

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    Comment by samlcarr — 17 September 2007 @ 1:04 pm

  14. ” I found that i still knew the words for ‘donkey’, and ‘irritating devil’, but nothing else.”

    Those would come in handy talking with Hesiak.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 September 2007 @ 2:11 pm

  15. “Are you thinking of the “beginnings” of modern “math” or of like Pythagorean “demonstrations”?”

    I don’t know much about either subject, to tell you the truth, but modern math builds incrementally on what the Greeks did before them. India too has a strong math trajectory, though the cross-pollenization is relatively recent.

    ““eurythmia” is “cosmological”, whereas modern French is more like a mechanical process.”

    I studied Hebrew and Greek in seminary, and the languages have a very different feel from one another. Ancient Hebrew is sort of “flat” — a lot of parallel clauses all strung together with “and” constructions. Greek is very hierarchical and systematic — a much better candidate for structuralism than is Hebrew. Latinate languages including French are Greek-like in this regard; so is German. English seems more like a hodgepodge than a system, so maybe it’s more naturally oriented to the pragmatic approach. The French, like the Hebrews, place more emphasis on memorizing than do the Americans, so maybe the French too are eurythmic (a Greek word).

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 September 2007 @ 2:22 pm

  16. ” I found that i still knew the words for ‘donkey’, and ‘irritating devil’, but nothing else.”

    Those would come in handy talking with Hesiak.

    Thanks for the hearty giggle :)

    And I’m pretty sure you know at least as much as I about both modern and Greek math. But you had said the following: Math probably began as a more formally structured discipline consciously invented by adults. I could certainly see how that would be true if you were thinking of modern mathematics. But I would think you would have to approach it differently when thinking of a Pythagorean demonstration. Example: Vitruvius speaks of scientific laws as “demonstrations” of “the thing signified”, which paints a picture of “demonstration” is not just like some object in the world that is methematically notated in a formal invented language.

    And of course I don’t know either Greek or Hebrew, but I do know that they are quite different. From what I do know it makes sense to me that Greek would be a better candidate for structuralism. But I don’t think a language’s being “more neumonic” necessarily leads to its being more “eurythmic.” This was the distinction I was making previously…between ancient languages that are both “neumonic” and “eurythmic”…and more modern languages that often seem to loose the “eurythmia”. (?)

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 September 2007 @ 3:36 pm

  17. I think I see your distinction on math as demonstration — you mean how mathematics can demonstrate harmonic relationships, proportions, the music of the spheres and so on, such that material phenomena point toward ideal relationships? It’s like your circles and squares, where formal pure geometric shapes stand behind more haphazard material manifestations.

    There is, I think, a relationship with structuralism here. People who speak real sentences point beyond themselves to the eternal Greek Logos. Individual and specific things point to the perfect essence of that thing, which expresses itself in less perfect material representations. This is how Language as a transcendent ideal structure pointing to ideal signifieds would “speak” the speakers and the things they speak about. Structuralism is a modern outgrowth of continental idealism, which tracks back to the classical Greek era.

    Speaking of Pythagoras, check out this weird-ass thing that somebody linked to on Cultural Parody Center. There’s a lot of strange gnostic conspiracy theory going on, but also some interesting stuff about music and the Greeks. I read I think parts of chapters 2 and 3 and thought of you.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 September 2007 @ 4:31 pm

  18. Sam, do you think you could still speak Swahili? I’ve known of people who were once fluent in a language but lost the ability entirely through lack of use.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 September 2007 @ 8:59 pm

  19. John, I can remember some of the most oft used stuff like greetings and simple counting, but the grammar and most of the vocab are all long gone. I left Kenya when I was 9! I found something slightly different for French which I studied in HS, most of the grammar and vocabulary have ‘gone’ but surprisingly i can still understand most of what i read!

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    Comment by samlcarr — 18 September 2007 @ 6:50 am

  20. It’s strange, isn’t it? You’d think learning a language as a child “by osmosis” would stick with you, like riding a bike. Language isn’t only a tool for communicating; it’s also a pervasive medium in which all social interaction is embedded. It seems that the use-based linguistic skills depend on remaining immersed in the medium.

    There’s supposedly a critical interval in early childhood for learning language by osmosis, after which time the person struggles more, can’t speak without an accent, etc. Maybe the same is true of losing a language: if you stop speaking it before a certain age you forget it.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 18 September 2007 @ 7:23 am

  21. Yes, but do I really loose the knowledge, or is it still there somewhere, maybe on a biochip, ready for activation after just a few refreshment lessons when the time is ready?
    I tend to believe the latter, because I used to teach French to acquaintances and was amazed that those who had used the old method 20 years before were able to tap into their memory. So maybe when we think we don’t learn anything we are wrong.

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    Comment by Odile — 18 September 2007 @ 8:10 am

  22. I know in the Netherlands there is a split in methods – two separate ways to learn the language. A good example of considering how people learn and creating education that takes this into consideration.
    I think this is the challenge, to determine where someone is in his development and to give the person exactly the education that fits.

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    Comment by Odile — 18 September 2007 @ 9:07 am

  23. But it’s strange that someone could speak a language every day, spontaneously, one might say unconsciously, without having to translate from some other language, and then not be able to call it up at will. I can’t imagine forgetting English, even if I didn’t speak, hear, read or write the language for the next thirty years. But maybe it’s like playing a musical instrument. I used to be able to sight-read music and play it pretty much error-free the very first try. Now I don’t even remember the fingerings. Maybe because fluent language use is such a complex skill it needs continual refreshment to keep the skill level high.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 18 September 2007 @ 12:30 pm

  24. Yea, I think that if you didn’t use a language for 30 years that it would gradually leave you…probably more significant than not using the language would be using another language. You would train your brain and tongue to think and live within a different culture of language. Language is such an intimate part of everyday life, and also a critical means of processing that same life and giving it meaning. Hence if you operated within a particular language world for many, many years then it would take a while to re-assimilate yourself back into the former language world.

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    Comment by Erdman — 23 September 2007 @ 7:43 pm

  25. This is an empirical question: do you forget your native language if you speak a different one all the time? And is there some critical age after which you never forget? After a critical age of maybe 12 and you learn a new language even by immersion you’re still stuck with an accent. Maybe your brain just gets more hard-wired to the original language once your brain stops restructuring and growing. Like I say, there must be data about people who’ve moved to a place where they never again speak their original language.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 23 September 2007 @ 8:02 pm

  26. American teachers are content to know that the kids can understand what they read and can write a short coherent essay about it.

    In other words – pragmatism! Which shouldn’t surprise you given that American ancestors come from the slutty docks of Mother Europe, that whorehouse of the world. Did you really expect European refuse to evolve into gold? Do you see now, Ktismatics, how great, sophisticated, and important Lacan REALLY is? For this subject the French documentary ETRE ET AVOIR is especially interesting!

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    Comment by parodycenter — 23 September 2007 @ 8:17 pm

  27. Pragmatism, most assuredly. It’s interesting how a pragmatic culture can even shape the way its people learn the language. I suppose it’s possible that English is intrinsically more pragmatic in its structure than, say, French or Greek or German. Its components have probably been assembled more pragmatically, kind of like a linguistic free market adopting whatever it can use from other languages regardless of how it fits aesthetically into the overall system. And I agree that, for a culture like America, reading Lacan and really trying to understand him is a good cross-cultural experience — likewise Freud and Hegel and Derrida and all the rest of the continentals whose thought is perhaps structured differently from the way ours is. But of course the voice is always playing in the American’s head: what’s the USE of this knowledge, how will it PAY OFF?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 23 September 2007 @ 10:53 pm

  28. Although politically speaking I doubt that there is an essential dispute between the States and Western Europe, except in terms of which bitch is going to get which new colony and on what terms. I think the split runs through the East and the West, as I believe Chomski wrote in ”Old New World Order”. These bitches here may be more sophisticated, they may be using language more wisely, but deep down in their gold-digging hearts they are envious of American money and their politics will always accomodate the Emperor, whoever he happens to be.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 24 September 2007 @ 4:03 am

  29. Maybe by making themselves aware of the socio-economic structures in which they’re immersed, Europeans are more self-aware regarding their complicity with power and their self-serving motives, as well as the possibility that they might act otherwise but don’t. This is perhaps the famous “European pessimism” that Americans detect, and by which the Americans are by and large repelled. Bush, like a prototypical American CEO, is pragmatic, intentional, resolute and optimistic but apparently lacking in self-awareness. I believe Bush is the first American president with an MBA.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 24 September 2007 @ 8:16 am


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