Saturday, April 14, 2007

Reeling, Writhing and Fainting in Coils... in Sign?

... As Lewis Carroll wrote, the Mock Turtle Academy teaches those three subjects, as well as the major branches of Arithmetics-- Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision. My childhood is long past, yet I still smile at those puns.

Play with words helps learning. Interestingly, pretend play can help with the development of reading skills. This link is about as readable as mud, but the bottom line is, imaginative play helps develop the language skills needed for reading.

Daily, we find it easier to rely on environmental cues to communicate just what "give me that" means. But the rules in pretend games are different! You must communicate more clearly-- "give me the glass of lemonade you have in your hand." The ability to construct a story is also very important for reading.

Studies on language and our short-term memory indicates we only have so much memory for a chain of nonsense words-- from a low of 3 to a best of 7 on average. We need to chunk words and ideas into bigger concepts that we then memorize in order. By this chunking process, a person can memorize Pi to ten thousand digits, as a series of phone numbers, whatever... and then on demand, reel it all out. Amazing! That's REAL reeling.

When a child is struggling with reading words, the words themselves first need to make sense, then the child must be able to recognize chunks. The whole sentence needs to be understood, too, and the understanding comes from building a mental storyline in your head of the sentence.

Man bites dog. (Latin: Canem homo mordit)
Dog bites man. (Latin: Canis homem mordit)

Read right, these sentences give very different ideas of what's happening. Here's the question: how does the reader or language speaker learn to recognize the difference between the two sentences? No 2-year old endures daily language drills to learn grammar.

Instead, kids learn by example, repetition, looking for patterns. And they often get it wrong now and then on the way as they learn language.

By age 3-6, a child will start doing wordplay such as:
Rhymes: recognizing how words sound
Tongue-twisters: pronouncing similar words
Jokes based on simple puns
Repetition of words in songs, especially culmulative songs

Culmulative songs especially may test and develop memory strongly.

When kids begin reading, they can be introduced to wordplay on paper-- rebuses, "wacky words", which can help teach idiomatic language. This of course is the timetable for children growing up with spoken languages.

The pattern with sign language is slightly different. Kids can learn to sign clearly quicker than for speech, but will otherwise develop grammatically on a schedule similar to hearing children.

Older kids may do the following games in American sign language (ASL):
ABC or number stories, using different handshapes-- like acrostics in English.
Bilingual word play== "I understand" (I STAND (under))
Play on mistranslation of homonyms-- RIGHT as (correct, righthand, legal rights)

There are not many "finger-twisters" told using the same hand signs, as they are easier in ASL.

My personal favorite example of a true finger-twister is: "Silly yellow dutch pipe cow phone." This will truly make your wrist writhe as you spell it.

Another type of finger-twister may occurwhen the signer attempts to sign two different simple words at the same time, such as DOG/CAT... and then try and speed it up to normal fingerspelling levels. This will make your mind reel-- as it's impossible without a lobotomy.

Another game in sign language might be "Mirror sign" in which two hands will fingerspell or do signs in unison, facing each other, as in a mirror. This is easy to sign, but challenging for others to read.

And of course, ASL signers can do visual word play in English by moving their hands as they fingerspell. Many "loan words" in ASL incorporate movement.

A simple example: "B-a-c-k" is often signed rapidly as "B-ck" and the direction of movement will show the meaning-- "back to me", "back to you", etc.

Many ASL signers spontaneously show diacritical marks (`' ~^ over letters) by moving the letters they are fingerspelling.

Therefore an ô will bounce, an ì will slope downwards, an Ä will be signed "A " rapidly followed by a crooked V stabbing the dots over it. An Ç will be a C moving down in a short J.

Apostrophes such as in "C'est" will be spelled as a twisting C followed by EST as the C handshape is used to paint the apostrophe. The exception may be for "O'" in Irish names where the O may move in a circle before moving to the next letter.

Compared to painting French punctuation in the air while spelling the words, "FAINTING" in coils is easy.

Now you can see why I enjoy Lewis Carroll.

I am curious, though-- where are the memory games in sign language? There is no precise parallel to culmulative songs in ASL. Echolalia does not count. But now I think of it, culmulative songs could be done in turn, with each new signer contributing a verse in logical order.

This makes it similar to an ASL-story around, also known as a round-robin story. This does test listening memory and the ability to keep a story going.  Many people can tell you that inventing, memorizing, and performing an ABC story is indeed challenging to the memory.

Round robin stories were in fashion among educated Victorians during the 19th century, when ASL had its strongest development period before the Milan Congress in 1880.

However, among hearing people, culmative songs can be played even further as a memory game if the person is required to repeat what others have already said before adding a new verse.

I have not seen a ASL Round-robin story played this way. I would be interested to know if anybody has in fact played a round-robin story like this.  I doubt it.

I think I have seen ABC stories done like a culmative song, as one narrator gets stuck on an letter and another child repeats the ABC story and tries to devise a new letter.

What are your favorite word games from a child?