Big Bird and Big Bert

My two-year old twins are in the Sesame Street phase of life when characters like Elmo and Grover are as real as they can be. As we started reading Sesame Street books with them, I realized that my daughter Salma kept referring to Bert as “Big Bert.” At first, I thought I heard her incorrectly and she had really meant “Big Bird.” Then she started pointing to the pictures in the book. The tall yellow bird-like creature was properly referred to as “Big Bird” and then the character of Bert, who was without his life partner Ernie in the picture, was referred to as “Big Bert.” I clearly heard the [t] sound hitting her alveolar ridge. I laughed immediately and corrected her by pointing to the feathered friend and clearly saying “Big Bird” and then pointing to the ornery character and saying “Bert.” She looked at me with those beautiful big eyes and I assumed she took this information in and processed it immediately. Of course, she continued with her labels of “Big Bird” and “Big Bert” when pointing to the characters in the book and still does as of now. Was it the alliteration that was stumping her? Could she not decipher the distinction between the various /b/ words? Then I realized that she is perhaps playing a ritualistic game with me because she would start the deictic act by saying “Mummy look…Big Bert.” I would come over each time and continue making the distinction between “Big Bird” and “Bert.”

How do young children make sense of alliteration? We know alliteration is good for the human ear but why and how does it work with young babies? Do they sense the phoneme hopping quickly from one word to the next?

Another interesting game that Salma plays with me is the M/W game. When I am reading magazines at the table, she comes and looks for letters in the magazine, often taking over the table space and the precious little time for myself. When she finds a capital /M/, she then quickly flips the magazine upside down and says /W/ in her rounded way.Is this an act of transmediation? Does this act go back to the mirroring effect we see young children later on in their schooling display when they write the letter /b/ as the letter /d/?

The language games with Salma will continue and I love them all.

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The Arabic Alphabet in a First Grade Classroom: The need for spatial intelligence

Today I was helping out a teacher at my daughter’s Sunday school. She was quite overwhelmed. There were close to 25 first-grade children, mostly boys, who had way too much energy for her to handle. She had just replaced someone else before her last month and has no teaching experience. The cacophony was strident as one walked into the room. I immediately took control and she was quite relieved: Sister Samina was here to save the day.

I went over some basic classroom management techniques and taught her some ways for her to memorize the students’ names so she can know them better. Then I started teaching…

The students had to take a test next week on the Arabic alphabet. The majority could not write the entire alphabet on paper. Many did not know the order either. Some knew all the letters and wrote with perfect strokes.

So I started a game by splitting the class in half. Students had to come up to the board and write out the letter I called. There were some students who already knew how to read in Arabic because it was their native tongue. They were the minority. The majority were Muslim students whose parents were from India and Pakistan and barely even knew Urdu, their supposed native tongue.

Interestingly, the native Arabic speakers would come to the board and write more than one version of a letter. This baffled the South Asians–the idea that a letter can be written in multiple forms. The teacher went on to explain that in the Arabic language a letter looks differently depending on its spatial position: it has a different grapheme when it is in the front of a word, in the middle, at the end and by itself. Yes, English is challenging in the sense that some letters can make more than one sound [/c/ can make both the [k] and [s] sound] and that one sound can be made by more than one combination of letters [ /f/ can be made by /ph/, /ff/, /f/, /gh]. There are silent letters. There are blends and digraphs. On a phonetic level, English is challenging to decode but the shape of the letter for the most part stays the same, minus changes in font. The letter “A” will always look like an “A” regardless of its position—okay–okay—depending on whether it is a capital letter or a lowercase letter. We can still conclude that an “A” will always be “A” and an “a” will always be an “a”.

In Arabic, it is an entirely different grapheme depending on where that letter is located within the word. The first-graders had a hard time understanding this concept. Many nodded in unison and hoped to move onto the game again.

Does Arabic require greater spatial intelligence since its readers have to look at each curve, line, spiral, dent and dot to interpret what letter it may be? That is what is said of Chinese whose readers’ spatial intelligence must then help them understand mathematics better, say some scholars. There must be a relationship between the decoding of a language and its letter/sounds and its affects on the notion of multiple intelligences. Does the manner of repeated eye movements when decoding in a particular language therefore affect our brain circuitry over time? What effect does reading Hindi, a language in which one letter has various shapes and sounds from aspirated to unaspirated, have on the neural network? What effect does reading English, a language in which letters can make different sounds depending on the context of the word, have on our neural network?

I hope someone can answer these questions in the near future as we start zooming in on the human brain. People like Patricia Kuhl, a cognitive scientist, perhaps. In the meantime, next week I am bringing in buttons, Cheerios and bags of cotton balls so the first-graders can make their Arabic letters in the most common American way–the tactile way.

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Are Babies All About Efficiency?

Salma and Yuself, my twins, spend more time with me and their grandmother, both Hindi-Urdu speakers, than with their English-only father who is often gone to work from 7 AM to 7 PM. Yet, I cannot help wonder why my daughter Salma, but not Yusef my son, continues to use English words with me and my mom and has not been as quick to switch from English to Hindi. She still continues to say “shoes” instead of “जूते.” I thought at first it is because the word “shoes” has less syllables. Wrong. Both words have 2 syllables. Yet, she will also say “water” instead of “पानी”more often, even though both words have 2 syllables as well. I assumed that bilingual babies are efficient beings who choose words with the least number of sounds—regardless of the language and its context. So then what drives Salma’s language choice? Is it due to efficiency? No because each word had the same number of syllables? Is it just context? Why does she associate her sippy cup with the English “water” and not the Hindi word “पानी”? After I say the word “पानी”, Salma often corrects herself and repeats after me perfectly in Hindi. Will she become English dominant since she has shown a preference for English words? Will my son become Hindi-Urdu dominant due to his preference? We will have to keep observing them…

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The Whiteness of Snow

Today, it snowed. I took my two-year old and two-month son to the window to show him the snow. He said nothing and did not notice the snow. Then later in the afternoon I took my two-year and two-month daughter to the window to show her snow. Her first word was “दूध” which means “milk.” She abstracted the whiteness/the color of milk and added it onto the meaning of snow–an unknown object to her. She did not know what it was and therefore did not know how to name it. Yet, she was able to use metaphorical language and say “snow is milk.” This observation of her reminded me of a New Yorker article titled The Interpreter by John Colapinto on a linguist named Dan Everett who studied a Brazilian tribe called the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN). Everett challenged Chompsky’s notion of a hard-wired universal language:

The Pirahã, Everett wrote, have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few”—terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition. Everett’s most explosive claim, however, was that Pirahã displays no evidence of recursion, a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete thoughts (“the man is walking down the street,” “the man is wearing a top hat”) into a single sentence (“The man who is wearing a top hat is walking down the street”). Noam Chomsky, the influential linguistic theorist, has recently revised his theory of universal grammar, arguing that recursion is the cornerstone of all languages, and is possible because of a uniquely human cognitive ability.

When my daughter said “milk” for snow, it reminded me of this tribe. Instead of having names for colors, they would instead refer to the color of objects in metaphorical terms: “That object looks like the berries I ate yesterday.” There is no word for that definitive color. Rather, color is also fleeting and has no permanence just like all other aspects of their culture and why/how they were able to maintain their culture thus far. It is just the color of something I remember now in the present, they say. Thus, I can hear Salma saying to me “I know not what the word is for that stuff on the ground but it reminds  me of the color of milk so I will say it is milk.”
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Gender Differences and Language

It has been amazing watching my twins acquire language in the past year. They are now two years and two months of age. Yet, the boy twin seems to be taking a different path from the girl twin. Salma got herself onto a Fisher Price laptop for kids in which she had to press the key of the letter highlighted on the screen. Only after a few times of me modeling and scaffolding, Salma used her self directed learning skills and mastered the alphabet minus a few letters she still struggles with such as Q and F. Some letters she says the sound and not the name of the letter like for B and G and D. Today I watched her say the letter W as “double woo” and then turn the paper upside down to say the letter M. Clever. Her sense of spatial intelligence kicked in and she was able to see that a W and M are the same physically minus the directionality.

Meanwhile my boy twin has only mastered a few letters such as E and O. He often laughs through our letter practice session and does not take it as seriously as his sister. He did not bother to play with the Fisher Price laptop for kids, one of the rare moments when he did not try to steal the toy away from his sister. However, unlike his sister, he is more talkative and says many more words than she does. He also loves to play with words and he has a better ability to switch from Hindi to English. He knows when to say “socks” when he is with Bart, his father, and “मोज़े” with me in Hindi. Meanwhile, Salma continues to say “socks” to me in English, “shoes” to me, and “water” to me–all in English. Yusef uses only the Hindi words with me and English with dad. Does Salma follow the laws of efficiency and choose the shorter sounding word? Yet, Yusef has excellent prosody–his right brain. He can start mimicking my sounds and phrases. In fact, he has started moving from one-word sentences to two-or-more words in a Hindi sentence. He smiles while doing so and knows what he has accomplished: “तुम कहाँ हो”

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Ebi, Nia, Fenris–Rattling Off a List of First Words

Even though Yusef and Salma are two-year old twins, their language development is quite different. Yusef challenges stereotypes as the loquacious boy and Salma as the taciturn little girl. He is much more vocal not only in terms of volume but in naming words. However, there is a daily ritual when and where Salma begins to rattle off her list of first words or known knowns. On the changing table, a few months ago, Salma began impressing me by rattling off the names of everyone in her life: Nia, Ebi, Fenris, Nani, Nana, Mama, Najda, Aunty, Debbie, Jason, etc. For her, names of family members came first. She would look me in the eye, say the name and smile with a beam. For him, the names of objects came first such as “truck” and “ball.” The one name that he utters continuously is that of Salma, his twin sister. She could care less and has yet to name him. He looks at a photo of himself and still says “Salma” at age two.

Even though both began naming similar objects when language made its debut such as “पंखा”, their roads have diverged at the fork in the road since then. Is this when and where schema begins and how we organize the world through our naming lists? Do we develop different schema and therefore develop different lists of words? If only I could sit down with them like Charlie Rose with his subjects and delve into their funny brains!!

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“Oh badilla! Oh badilla!” says Yusef.

Deixis is defined by the act of pointing that human beings have used throughout history to name things and to index things. We saw something. We pointed. We named it as best as we could perhaps with the help of home grown onomatopoeia so others knew its name also. My two-year old twins are in that early stage of language development when and where they point to objects and name them because they want them. Little Yusef may point to his sippy cup of milk and exclaim “दूध”. I have to decide whether I want to play his game and give him what he has pointed to because I know I will be stuck for life giving him what he points to–all the way into his twenties. However, near 18-months or so, I noticed that Yusef would point to objects he wanted but did not know the name for it. Therefore, he invented a unique word for an object he wanted but could not name–badilla–a word that neither I have ever used in Hindi nor my husband in English. It was not a part of our lexicon at home. He invented the word on his own and it too smacks of onomatopoeia with its sonic qualities. A few months later his twin sister Salma also caught on and started pointing and exclaiming “badilla” whenever she wanted something off in the distance. When both babies were with their grandparents during a babysitting stint, my mother called me out of desperation and asked what they mean by “badilla” and I needed to tell her quickly so they can be quiet. I explained to her that in their twinese “badilla” means that which is desired. Oh–she said.

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