Monday, August 06, 2007

Correcting Others

A certain party, who shall go nameless (a life saving measure), has the habit of responding to linguistic errors of mine by going blank and looking at me as if I am stupid (which I may be, at least relative to this other person who is going nameless). This party then corrects me. I then get ticked off. However, the behavior continues.

Today, this party blundered by saying that at least half of the blue cheeses in the supermarket made explicit that they were made from pasteurized cheese. I decided to pay this person back by saying, "Don't you mean, milk?" This person replied, "Oh, right, milk." What is the correct thing to do when someone misspeaks in this manner? The answer is to continue the conversation without making a correction. Here is a real conversation that illustrates the correct way to deal with these situations:
Him: "He," referring to guy on stage playing an alto sax, "also plays an alto sax."
Me: "I know."
Him: "I mean, soprano sax."
Me: "I know."
Emulate me in all future conversations. (A smiley should go here.) Unless, of course, some sort of serious confusion might be involved.

There are two kinds of corrections of adults of interest to me here. One is correcting another person's word choice. In some cases, the adult, say, someone like George Bush, seems not to know the word. You will have to decide for yourself whether you have the right sort of relationship with that person to correct him. Here is another real conversation. My friend was in the Air Force and wrote every letter and document his commanding officer signed. Once he used the word "vacillate" in a draft of something, knowing perfectly well his commanding officer didn't know the word. His boss asked him what it meant and he told him.
Commanding Officer (after his troops had been ordered to fall into line): "Stop vacillating and get in straight lines."
My Friend: (said nothing and didn't laugh out loud)
In the case of a child, especially your child, it is perfectly reasonable to correct word choices. Teaching words is the one thing you can help their kids with insofar as language learning is concerned. It is important, of course, to read to them as often as you can and even when you think you are too busy. If they ask you what some word in the book means tell them. What you are reading gives them a context of usage so the book does some of your work.

Now we come to the issue of correcting grammar and pronunciation. With young children, the answer is a simple one: don't do it. The reason you should not correct grammar with young children is that it may confuse them . The reason is simple. We adults usually know what the notion "grammatical sentence" means. We know it has to do with form, not content. Children do not know that. Explain to your three year old what you mean by "sentence form." I dare you. It is hard enough to teach that concept to college freshman. It is, after all, a quite abstract concept. As a result, since kids who don't understand the concept of grammatical sentence do understand the distinction between a true and false sentence, the odds are good that your child will think you are telling them that what they are saying is false when, in fact, it is true.

If you provide Standard English for your child when you talk to them, your work is done (except for word teaching). They will do the rest. There is a widely accepted belief that we teach our children language. The fact is that 99.9 % of parents don't have a clue as to the rules of English (Spanish, etc.) grammar -- I mean the real rules, not the superficial things our grammar teachers focus on. When children are 9 to 10 years old it will be time to clean up some of their errors to make sure they are on the path to Standard English but understand that some language learning goes on until a kid is around 12 years old, the last I heard. Any time we learn a new subject in college or read anything of any intellectual interest we are likely to have to learn some new words. That part of language development should continue throughout your life. I hope I sometimes provide examples that make you turn to your dictionaries for help. In many cases you will be undergoing some cognitive development as a part of understanding this new subject. This is a good thing, as Martha would say.

When your children are very young, it is a huge waste of time to correct their mispronunciations. They should be encouraged to speak and any corrections may discourage them. Depending on the stage of language development they are in, they may not be able to make the desired sound. So, if your 3 year old says "wed" for "red" don't try to correct her. Your child probably can't make an "r" sound yet. If the child is 12 and still makes that mistake, you may need to intervene. In general children's mispronunciations are funny. Enjoy them. At one point our kid said, "breakstress" for "breakfast." We enjoyed that. She said "moi" for "more." We thought that was cute.

One thing your children may do is illustrated by the following made up conversation, modeled on some I have read about in the literature.
Mom is grating some cheese for pasta.
Child: Can I grape some?
Mom: No, say, "May I grate some?"
Child: Yes, can I grape some?
The child in such a case seems to be hearing herself as saying what you are saying. If that is true, then trying to fix your child's English would be a real mistake. They will get it right eventually.

Though we each had Ph.D.'s in Linguistics, my wife and I never once corrected our child. She speaks perfect English. But then so do we. Fortunately she decided to use us for our models. Sadly, there are a lot of models out there that I wouldn't want my kid emulating.

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Blogger Vance Maverick said...

So when she emulated other models, you kept quiet, knowing that in the end, she would make the choice of models you preferred?

10:41 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

This was before Whites started speaking "Black" so we didn't really have an issue with deliberately learning some very different dialect. We were pretty sure her productions, which were the result of being a child more than anything else, would sort themselves out.

In fact, the ability of children to sort things out is amazing. A child who grows up in a bilingual home, will at one point create hybrid productions but then later separate the languages. The only case I know of well, the father spoke English and the Mother Portuguese to the child and they spoke English, I believe, at the dinner table and other occasions like that. They didn't overtly direct the kid's learning in as much as the dad was a linguist doing an experiment. He wasn't a mad man experimenter since he was pretty sure how it would turn out.

11:10 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

LG, what do you think about talking baby talk to babies? Like for instance when I talk to my 5 mth old grandson "What you doin poe poe? Whats the widdle feller up to, today?" accompanied with the appropriate fond gestures & grimaces of course. He seems to like it & responds positively. It seems natural to talk this way to him. I notice most people talk to babies pretty much the same way. Do you have any thoughts or theories on that?

10:46 PM

Blogger Ripple said...

Maybe she meant to say that "half were made from pasteurized cheeses".

11:49 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...


You cannot do otherwise than use baby talk with a young child. I am convinced that we are hard wired to do it. You do it to your pets too. I once noted to our psycholinguist expert on child language that I didn't think I did a lot of baby talking with my kid. She laughed as said I was one of the worst cases she had seen. So, when I picked the kid up, I decided to talk to her as an adult. That lasted all of about 15 seconds.

9:10 AM


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