Saturday, March 15, 2014

Letting Kids Learn to Read

You can't really teach children to read in English.  There's no way kids can just learn what sounds each letter corresponds to, much less telling them to "sound the words out."  Note, for instance, that the ough combination is pronounced differently in cough, though, thought, rough, and thorough.  And, as I've noted in previous posts on the vagaries of English spelling, those words are not the exceptions to any rule at all.

I've also mentioned that I taught myself to read when I was only 3 years old. What happened was that one of my father's customers gave him an old blackboard for his children.The blackboard had a roller gizmo on the top with pictures of words and their spelling under them. Whenever, you turned the knob, a new set of pictures and words appeared.  By matching the whole words to the pictures, I figured out how to read.  My mother didn't even suspect that I could read until she caught me reading the newspaper she had spread on the table to wrap the garbage in.  In those days, in Providence, all garbage had to be wrapped in newspapers to be picked up by the garbage men.

Since my parents had a modest library, which included Heidi, Little Women, Eight Cousins, The Good Earth and Gone with the Wind, before I was old enough to get a library card, I had devoured every book in my house, including the encyclopedia The Book of Knowledge dating from 1924. My parents never tried to teach me to read at all.  They were more concerned that I should learn to embroider, knit, sew and crochet. What good was a girl who was a bookworm?  I never even came close  to learning those female skills.  In fact, I flunked kindergarten which, in those days, made us fold papers, color within the lines and other, to me, undoable hand skills.

Even though my parents never thought of even valuing my reading skills, they unwittingly did set the stage that allowed me to learn on my own. 

An aside: I have ties to the Filipinos in the USA. They have appealed to me to buy books in English for native speakers of Tagalog in rural areas of the Philippines. As part of my upbringing as an Orthodox Jew,  giving to charity has always been important to me.  Still, I refused these requests because it is a waste of money.  I explained to the Filipinas that their concern was wonderful, but that trying to teach children to read standard English, when it wasn't their native tongue was futile. But, I had a better idea--which they negated.

The better idea?  As I said, in order to learn to read, you have to let the children read.  How can this be done?  While buying my granddaughter a Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet, I discovered that B&N makes a special Kid's Tablet, which they virtually give away. It costs $100, but they give you more than that in free coupons to populate the tablet with books and games.  I couldn't resist trying it out.  I already knew that B&N had an incredible library of children's book in the 2,000,000 volumes for their eReaders.  That's why I chose the Nook for my granddaughter so she could read all the classics intact with the original engraved pictures on her tablet.

What has this to do with the Philippines?  The kid's Tablet has a slew of brilliantly illustrated children's books which can be "read" by a narrator who reads the words on the printed page as the child is "reading."  Easily, many 3 year olders could teach themselves to read this way, matching each word to the narrator's pronunciation. 

It works.  My Assistant remarked to me that her 3 year old wanted to read, but she didn't know how to teach her.  A visit to the Nook Center in the Barnes and Noble store resulted in a Kid's Nook for Christmas.  In 3 months, her child was reading on her own.  Today, my Assistant took her little girl to the Providence Public Library to get her first library card.  (You can also download library books onto your Nook.)  

I asked my friend how much time she'd spent teaching her daughter to read on the Nook, and she said that all she did was give it to her daughter, and her daughter (who was already acquainted with an iPhone) just played games, watched movies and listened to books on her own.  The child even recorded herself reading--another neat feature.  In any event, the child was allowed to learn on her own.  It works. 

Everything I know about the process of reading, and I know a lot, predicts that schools should leave their books on their shelves and, in early education, purchase Kid's Nook Tablets. B&N would probably sell them to schools for a song.  Teachers could select what books they want the kids to read.  There are even spelling games. And math games.  Just watching the little kids playing with the demos at the local B&N  store shows how into tablets kids are. Even before the age of 3.  As for the problem  of theft, the Tablets would have to be bolted with chains on their tables. 

 Considering the millions of dollars trying to teach kids to read, and failing, outfitting early education classes withe these Kid's Tablets would be cheaper and more effective than what is being done now.  Nonstandard speakers would also learn standard English as they learn to read by noting how the narrator pronounces each word. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

I Shutter as I Reed

I owe my friend Joodie Perlow, a gifted wordsmith, for the following examples.  She sent me a newspaper clipping from an unknown newspaper, written by a Gene Weingarten.  I'm glomming his examples, but not copying his wording, excellent as it is.

He entitled his article, "Tiresome dribble."  I guess drivel can be dribbled, but not as easily as water can.  Then, his favorite is "toe-headed children," a gruesome picture, as opposed to tow-headed, adorable blondes.

He quotes misuse of words in an emergency room, like the patient who suffered from "the smiling mighty Jesus" instead of spinal meningitis.  Then there's the female complaint "fireballs of the Eucharist," fibroids of the uterus.

Weingarten actually googled all these errors and found thousands of instance of each.  Here are more common errors: "self of steam," self esteem; "pedal stool" pedestal; "lack toast in tolerant," lactose intolerant; "mind grained headaches," Migraine headaches; "80 HD," ADHD, attention deficit disorder; and
"minus well" for might as well.

Literacy as we old folks know it done got up and gone away. The age of illiteracy is upon us.

Oh, by the way, do you have a female dog that was spaded, poor thing? Mine have all been spayed. We spay them so they don't have puppies.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Problems With Words

I am writing a book about dogs, how they evolved, when and why.  I'm having a very hard time deciding when to refer to them as wolves, and when to call them "dogs."  The problem is that, it is clear, that dogs evolved from wolves--not the big North American wolves. Our dogs are not descended from them at all.  Rather, our dogs' ancestors were small gray wolves, which are now extinct!  The problem lies in deciding at what point one should refer to Spot's ancestors as wolves or dogs?  I find myself bewildered very frequently by this problem in our lexicon.  There is no accepted point in history that has been designated as canines that were already dogs, as opposed to canines that were still wolves.  Yes, there are criteria such as whether the canine skull is domed or flat, and whether paw prints have four pads or five.  The problem is the scarcity of fossilized paw prints, and, at which point one decides that a curve in the skull indicates a dome or is just a random variation in an otherwise flat skull.

Language is as precise as its users require.  Humans, including most scholars, have typically just taken the dog for granted.  They never really considered what role dogs have played in civilization. Dogs are just there, that's all. 

This lexical problem mirrors our confusion of whether a dog is a dog or if it is a wolf.  Once DNA evidence became available, scientists, on the basis of the fact that wolves and dogs share 98.8% of their DNA, decided to rename Canis familiaris to Canis lupus familiaris.  That is, they  designated dogs as belonging to the species of wolf.  That is what lupus means.  Before 1993 and the advent of DNA evidence, dogs were, I think correctly, named Canis familiaris.  In other words, dogs weren't just a species of wolf.  They were dogs, a separate species.

Then, it was decided that if two species could mate and bear viable young, they weren't two species.  This was based on the belief--or I should say the dictum--that only the members of the same species can produce viable offspring.  That wolves and dogs can interbreed had been known well before it was decided that dogs should be designated as "wolves that are familiar canines."  Interestingly, dogs can mate successfully with coyotes, but nobody is calling the coyote a dog or a wolf.  Many years before  DNA evidence indicated that dogs are descended from wolves, everyone was content to believe that dogs are a separate species from wolves.

In fact, researching the behaviors of dogs versus wolves, one finds that dogs are very different from wolves.  This problem is highlighted by the fact that the wolves that dogs are descended from are now extinct.  Indeed, I think that could be because the wolves that are the dogs' ancestors themselves evolved into dogs.  That's just a supposition, but it does explain  the fossil evidence.  My blog 

deals with this in depth and breadth.  The book I'm writing about the dog's role in civilizing humans deals with it in even greater detail.

However, every day, as I'm writing, I run into the wall of having to decide whether I'm writing about dogs or wolves.  I find  myself circumlocuting  by referring to "dogs that became wolves," or "dog wolves" or "wolfdogs."  There is no way of reconciling my prose with this lexical problem.  No matter which words I choose, I find them awkward, or imprecise.

Do you have a problem with the English lexicon that parallels with this one?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Creating New Words in English--Using Tone

I've already noted that English, like Chinese (and myriad other languages) uses tone.  We don't distinguish between entire words using tones as the archetypal tonal language does, but we use tone to signify stress.  If a foreign speaker doesn't know to do this, he or she can be very hard to understand.  Stress on words makes them recognizable

We use tone in another way as well,  a way associated with stress, but also with understanding words, as in Chinese.  Are you kidding?  I can hear your disbelief.  However, arguing with Elaine Chaika is done at your own risk.

English, from its Anglo-Saxon beginnings has constructed compound words from two words already in the language.  In fact, given compatible meanings, you can take any one syllable word and combine it with another one to make up a new word.  It's done all the time.  But it works only if you  say the first word at the highest pitch and the second one at the next highest.

Consider, for instance, a "house that is hot" vs. a hothouse.  Oh, you can speak of a house that's hot, not meaning a place to grow things,  by lowering the stress on house, saying, "Boy! That's a hot house. I'd hate to see their gas bills!"

In English, and this may be tough to understand unless you mutter along with my explanation, there are four tones to signal stress.  Every sentence--or phrase--has only one prime stress.  That's the  highest tone. Notice, 

"What a great lady!"   Say it with great  stressed.  Note that  what and lady are on lower tones.  Then try saying it with the other words getting prime stress.  Again, only one has that highest tone.  Typically, a sentence might have a first word at prime stress and all the others get progressively lower.  

Any syllable which can be a prime stress in a word will be the highest tone.  When, as is usual, a sentence has several words that can have prime stress, then, to distinguish where a new word is starting, all the potential prime stresses become secondary.  Listen to the tones in "Bad dog!"  If your bad  is the highest stress, then dog is secondary.  Try other phrases and you'll see how this works.

Now look at compounds.

A white house  vs. whitehouse (the President's house.)

a shoe horn (whatever that is) vs. a shoehorn.
a wipe for a nose vs. a nosewipe,
a hairy brush vs. a hairbrush
a hand kerchief vs. a handkerchief
a black board vs. a blackboard

All the ones spelled with no spaces between words are a combination of prime + secondary stress.  Each stress is said on its own tone.  So, to  create new words in English, all you have to do is put two words together with prime stress on the first word and secondary on the second.

Do you still think English is not a tonal language?

In fact, all languages have the same resources to draw upon.  Tone is one, so tone is used for different purposes in different languages, as are individual sounds, and rules for the subject and predicate in sentence building. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

EBooks, Indispensible for Researching

About a year ago, I wrote a post on the merits of eReading as opposed to paper books.  I'm not a tech-besotted 25 year old.  In fact, I'm 79 and have been reading everything and anything for 76 of those years.  Therefore,  if I laud the superiority of technology over traditional media,  you can be sure I speak from experience and comparisons.  During the 76 years that I've been an avid reader, I  have also written 7 books, innumerable scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals, and chapters in edited volumes.  Since all my publications were carefully researched, I am fully acquainted with the rigors of finding pertinent sources and wading through them for validity.

When I lauded the eBook last year, I noted that it lets you read vertically, not horizontally, so you can look something up as you're reading and then with a click get back to your book. 

Since I'm writing a book about one of my passions, dogs, I have been immersed in the research literature of dogs and other canines for several months now, but with a hiatus of a  few months while going through the horrors of moving into a condo in which everything, but everything, needed to be rebuilt or replaced.  The contractor from Hell oversaw the entire, and the movers from Hell brought a zillion cartons of stuff, much of it broken, to the new home. 

At least if I wanted to read during that period, the fact that hundreds of books were ready to read on my tablet, saved my sanity.  Unpacking and reshelving physical books was an exhausting, time-consuming endeavor.  But the stuff on my Nook was available instantly.  No, I have no intention of trashing my extensive library.  I still love books. But, practically, 2000 physical books are more difficult to handle than 2000 eBooks.  As my grandmother used to say, "Tenk Gotz." (thank God!)

The ordeal is pretty much over and I've been writing and researching for a month now.  In the process, I've not only learned a lot about the evolution of dogs, their cognitive abilities, their history with humans, their differences from wolves--even how The Old Testament treated dogs, but I've also discovered that the right eReader is an indispensable aid for research.  In fact, if I were sending a kid off to college, I'd gift her or him with the right eReader.

What do I mean by the "right" reader?  Aren't they all the same? Not at all.  I'll stick to the Kindle and the Nook.  Both were designed for readers,  not gamers, although you can game on both if you wish.  There are hundreds of thousands of Apps available for both.

The one thing I would not gift to my college-bound student is a Kindle.  Why not?  It is a good eReader and, thanks to Amazon's huge budget for advertising, they are the number 1 device.  Barnes & Noble can't compete in advertising with Amazon.  In fact, as I wrote several months ago, if Amazon puts Barnes & Noble out of business, Jeff Bezos will be the major source of books in the Western World.  Amazon has 1,000,000 books to choose from. B&N has 3,000,000. The difference?  B&N has rare books, OUP books, controversial books--you name it. They've been publishing books for 2 centuries, and, so far as I can tell, every title they've had during those years has been digitized.  And, a load of those older books are free.  Amazon also has free books.  

That, you say, makes it a draw.  Well, it might.  However, the Kindle doesn't use page numbers on most of their books, even new ones.  B&N has used page numbers at least since the Nook Color, which was the first color eReader on the market, and the only one for at least a year.  Not having page numbers makes the Kindle worthless as a research tool.  How does Amazon tell you where you are if they don't have page numbers?  They have, on the bottom margin, a "Location +number".  Nowhere do they tell you what constitutes a "location", nor how locations are relative to page numbers.  So, if you were enamored of a portion of text, on  the Kindle, it will say "Location 2266."  If you have the Nook, it will say, "page 150" or whatever.  I long ago gave up trying to sync those Location numbers with book pages.

In essence, the Kindle is useless for research.  You can 't cite the book or article you're referring to.  The MLA style sheet does not provide a line for "location," only for pages.

Now, let's get to the good stuff.  As you probably know, there are electronic sites that provide researchers just about every scholarly journal. You input key words for what you're looking for, and up comes a page--or even pages--with the full citation, page numbers, and abstract.  If you're lucky, and your college library subscribes to these websites, you can then download the full text of each article.  If you aren't lucky enough to be attached to a college with a subscription, you can rent the full article for a day or so, or you can pay between $20-$35 to get it.  You'd be hundreds of dollars in the hole before you were even close to all the stuff you need.  I have the app ReadCube on my computer.  It boasts of listing many thousands of journals.  With my school's proxy membership, I can get free full text articles. However, it can be time consuming and aggravating, but it's still great.

Well, what's greater?  My Nook HD+ uses Chrome as its browser.  Guess what? Jstor, Ebco, and a slew of other journal providers can all be accessed by simply inputting Jstor, for instance.  Then, if they have the articles you want, you can download them with full text.  I also found that if you buy a $14.95 app, (the most expensive I've seen on Nook) you can click on the article and it will be saved on that app.  There is no charge for this service.  What could cost $35 on Jstor  online, costs nothing on the Nook.

That's what I mean by "the right" eReader.  I spent all of yesterday searching journals for articles that sounded interesting.  I have to do a lot of research for my book: evolution, fossil dating, prehistoric iconographs, studies of cognition, results of domestication, smelling, hunter-gatherers...
With my Nook HD+, I got full text articles on each topic.  You don't even have to pay $149 for the HD+. You can check out the Nook Color, a 5 year old reader still being sold.  Just ask if you can search the Google website.  Then, at the store--Barnes & Noble sells their readers in their stores as well as online--try searching for JStor.  Then put in key words and see what pops up.  

If I had had such devices available to me when I was getting my doctorate and then publishing or perishing, I would have saved untold numbers of hours, but, easily more than a year's worth of time.  Probably ten years.  I predict that researching without the right eReader will soon be as outdated as the floppy disc computer.

What  is odd to me is that B&N doesn't advertise the benefits of using their devices as research tools, especially since the Kindle is not good for that purpose.  I haven't tried it on my iPad.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Addition, Edition

I presume that members of Goodreads are literate or else why would they be writing book reviews?  

While reading several posts last night, I came across 3 readers who spoke of "this addition," "the second addition" and "addition 3."  In each instance, the writers clearly were talking about an edition

Since both a t and a d in between vowels are pronounced the same way in American English, there is confusion between deep seated and deep seeded.  Which do you use? Latter and ladder are pronounced the same way, as are wedding and wetting.  I've seen preddy for pretty, shudder for shutter, madder for matter, among other spelling confusions.  

Oh, the joys of English spelling!!  Of course, calling an edition an addition  is because, in spite of the clear spelling differences, the words are homonyms. That is, they are pronounced almost identically.    Since both spellings refer to  a word in our lexicon, no spell checker can find a misspelling.  The problem is caused by the English stress system in which every unstressed vowel in a word becomes a schwa.  Therefore, the in add becomes an "uh" in addition, thus making it pronounced almost like edition.  The e in the latter word is pronounced "eh," in edit. But once that -tion ending gets put on it, the e turns into a schwa.

Please send me any examples you may have in which homonyms,  two words spelled differently but pronounced alike get confused.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How are English and Chinese Related?

So, what do Chinese and English have in common?  They both say words on different tones. By tones, I mean 'pitch.'  For instance, say "laboratory."  Say it again noting the rise and fall of your voice.  If you are an American English speaker, you'd say it like this:


This transcription captures the rise and fall of the voice. The tones signal stress.  English has four possible stresses on words: prime, secondary, tertiary and unstressed.   The rule is that there can be only one prime stress in a word, and that is said on the highest pitch, like the LAB above.  The ruh is our tertiary stress. Note the pitch falls.  The third syllable again rises, but not as high as the prime. The TAW is a secondary stress and the last syllable is unstressed, the lowest pitch  in the word.

Now, let's compare the usual British pronunciation to American.  The Brits say:


It's a marvel that we understand each other.  Each vowel is different from its counterpart in each dialect.  The British use two schwas ("uh" sounds) and omit the vowel altogether in the last syllable.  In American, we omit the vowel that the British give prime stress to.  In contrast, they omit the vowel we give secondary stress to.  Both dialects convert vowels to schwas, but in different syllables.   Americans have an "a" as in apple in the first syllable, where the British have a schwa. The British have a stressed vowel "BAW' where Americans have a schwa.  

These differences in pronunciation are all caused by the stress that lies on each vowel.  English is a stress-timed language.  That is, it takes about the same time to go to one prime stress and another.  This is achieved by omitting vowels, and making others a rapid, low pitched schwas.  Consider a sentence like:

 "My boyfriend was in the laboratory with me."  

There can be only one prime stress in a sentence.  All the other stressed vowels are automatically lowered by one pitch.  If the stress is put on boy, then the first syllable of laboratory, in American English, becomes secondary.  Moreover, to keep to the "rules" of English that it takes about the same time to get from one prime stress to another, the "grammatical words" like was in are both said in low tone and and are shortened in length. 

English, after all, was originally a language of words with only one or two syllables. When long Latin and French words were borrowed into English, to make the longer words conform to the rhythm of the language these stress rules came about. 

Nobody knows how hundreds or thousands of speakers, all change rules like those of stress.  We just know it happens.  I have taught the history of English--and historical Linguistics-- for years.  One thing that has struck me is that each language has its own rhythm, and when words are borrowed or formulated, the way they get pronounced seems to be influenced by the rhythm.  I never published in this field because I focused on other linguistic issues. If I had time, and alas! I don't, I'd study the rhythm of a few languages and see what happens when words are borrowed into them.  All you young speakers thinking of graduate schools, try linguistics.  There's much more to be done.

So, what has all this to do with Chinese?  We all know that Chinese uses tones on words.  In Chinese, ma said on the highest tone means one thing.  Said on a lower tone, means another, said in an even lower tone, it means another.  Said with a rising tone, it means another, and said in a descending tone, it means yet another.  This is true for every word in Chinese.  To learn words in Chinese, you have to learn their tones as well as their consonants and vowels.  The thing is that the tones used in Chinese vocabulary are not very different from the tones in English.  If I were still teaching, or if I had the time, I'd record native speakers of Chinese and native speakers of English and, using a spectograph, seeing if the tones of each language are alike, but used for different things in each language.  

English is not considered a tonal language, but it is. We signal stress by using tones as Chinese and other tonal languages do to signal words. It is very difficult to understand non-native speakers whose native language uses a different stress system than English does.  I think that foreign language teachers should concentrate more on the tones of a language and how individual languages use them.  They also should teach about how stress is indicated in different languages.

There are just so many resources of oral language.  Each language uses the same resources, but for different facets of language.