What we do and do not learn without trying

Useful line from Katharine’s last post:

…the conventions of written language, unlike those of spoken language, are not picked up incidentally by most native English speakers…

For some reason, I find the question of what we learn incidentally endlessly fascinating.

In my case, I actually did pick up most of the conventions of writing incidentally. I wrote by ear.

But how did I acquire an “ear”?

I’m sure my path to incidental learning of “school grammar” was obsessive reading. I was a bookworm: I read the backs of cereal boxes at the breakfast table; I read books when we had company; on vacation trips I read Agatha Christie mysteries as  my family walked along seeing the sights. [1/11/2020 – UPDATE: Had a conversation with Katharine yesterday re: learning to write without being taught to write. I’m not so sure now that obsessive reading was the ticket.]

At some point, I gained the ability to hear what I wrote.

Nevertheless, I would have been much better off if some teacher had sat me down and taught me the principles Katharine and I cover in Europe in the Modern World.

Basic grammar vs. “school grammar”

I still need wrap up my Structured Word Inquiry series (from last November!) with at least one more post, but some of the more recent twitter chatter on SWI has brought up a broader issue that I thought I’d address first. That would be the question of which aspects of grammar actually need to be taught to students who are native English speakers.

To address this question, it’s useful to draw a distinction between “basic grammar” and “school grammar.”

Basic grammar is the stuff that native speakers, assuming they don’t have language impairments/autism, pick up incidentally without formal instruction. This includes everyday vocabulary, word order, and word endings (morphology), and syllabification. Absent language impairments, native speakers, do not, for example, need to be taught that “crumb” and “crumbs” and “do” and “does” are related, or that we say “no bananas” rather than “no banana”–contrary to what some SWI proponents have suggested on twitter:

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Bullet journals and barking dogs

Just saw this in a New Yorker story on bullet journals:

He started writing down his thoughts in short bursts throughout the day and found that it calmed him, allowing him to see past his anxieties to their root causes. “When there’s a barking dog outside, you can’t hear anything else,” he told me recently, by way of analogy. “But when you go to the window you realize there might be something wrong, you think about it, you get the context. It’s barking at something. You actually get up and look. And, for me, writing is that process.”

The dog is barking at something. I love that.

Of course, in my own case, what with the two American Labs who weren’t bred to be “lifestyle dogs” and all, the real trick is training my adrenal glands not to launch a tsunami of cortisol every time the dogs explode into a frenzy of barking and hardwood-floor scrabbling over nothing at all.

I have an extremely reactive startle reflex. Medical science can do nothing to help (I’ve asked).

So the dogs we live with–Luke and Lucy–are the exact wrong dogs on that score. Roughly once a day I have the same bodily reaction to my own pets that I would to being caught in crossfire in Syria, say, or Yemen. Except there are no guns and no enemy combatants, quite apart from the fact that there is nothing in the yard that needs barking at. 

Keeping a bullet journal, which I do, doesn’t help with any of this, sad to say. I already know, as I’m jumping out of my skin, what the context is and whether there’s anything either I or my insane dogs actually need to worry about. 

There isn’t.

Oral vs. Written Language–Two Talks on Twitter

In the last 24 hours, I’ve participated in two different but intersecting discussions on Twitter—one on phonics, the other on autism. Their point of intersection: the question of oral vs. written language.

First, Phonics

The phonics discussion was one I couldn’t help jumping into. A distinguished education professor and specialist in reading instruction dismissed someone’s linguistically accurate observations about consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) patterns by telling them they should take a class in linguistics. I’ve taken many classes in linguistics, so I piped in as follows:
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Learning to write is good for STEM careers

John Bogle on learning to write in high school:

“My love for Blair [Academy] is pretty close to eternal,” Bogle told students during a visit in spring 2018. “It was at Blair Academy that I learned to use the English language and how to write. My teachers spent so much time with me, mostly with a red pen. But I got better and better under their tutelage. The result is that my writing ability, among other things, enabled me to go to Princeton and start Vanguard and watch it grow into a colossus.”

Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard Group and creator of the index fund, dies at age 89, CNBC, 1/17/2019

Carolyn J., a mathematician who co-created the first Kitchen Table Math with me (currently offline awaiting a new URL address) told me a story about leaving academia with her husband, also a mathematician, and trying to find work in the private sector. 

The transition wasn’t easy. Only colleges and universities pay you to do pure research in mathematics.

The company that eventually hired Caroline did so because she told the interviewer that she liked to write. That was true. She did like to write, and she was good at it.

After she was hired, the company hired her husband as well. Two new careers because one person knew how to write and liked doing it.

Being able to write is value-add. 

Reflections on about and around

Catherine’s spending Bastille Day getting back to the US; I’ll be spending it visiting Gettysburg. One of our traveling companions has equipped us with copies of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War. I finished it yesterday, and am now primed as can be for the theater of war and the dramatis personae: from Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top; from Pickett to Chamberlain.

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