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Category: language

Passing sentence – hard labour


So they don’t speak in sentences anymore! So trumpets a headline in a recent press report.

Apparently there is anecdotal evidence that young people are entering school and not speaking in sentences. Let’s accept for the sake of argument that those making this assertion are in a position to make such a judgment. What’s the explanation?

Well the immediate response is to lay the blame at the feet of electronic devices and media.

There might be an element of truth in this but it is not likely that the actions of little ones with their cute iPads or toy smart phones bring such a factor into consideration but the actions of their parents. Walk along any city street, or through a shopping mall or anywhere that grown up and especially young parents congregate with children and you will see the many adults giving closer attention to their texts and messages and whatever on their devices than they are to quality interaction with their children. One can only imagine that the situation is even worse at home where presumably the children are in a environment that requires even less attention from the parent.

Children develop language through a variety of factors. They arrive at the task with an innate desire to communicate through their eyes and their ears. They start with sound, move onto words and then proceed to put words together. They pick up patterns and rules and this process shows sometimes in the “mistakes” they make. “I for-nearly-got to put my underpants on,” said my son one morning. “I cutted my finger.”

They are acute observers of such patterns as emerge from the language they hear. Again, my son when told that we were going to go and see Granddad asked the question “Which one? ‘Golly Gosh’ or ‘Crikey Dick’?” He had observed that each grandfather had their own particular exclamation that they used and probably in fairly identical situations. Don’t underestimate the power of the young person when it comes to language learning.

In fact, the world’s population actually manage to learn their language to varying degrees without the help of schools, often in states of poverty and hunger, regardless of culture or faith. In fact one applied linguist claimed that it wasn’t learning language that was hard, but learning it in classrooms. Most young learners achieve excellent levels of language use with knowing a stick of grammar. Knowledge of grammar is useful for the most elegant and sophisticated uses of the language and is best learned when comparisons between language are possible. A child learning Maori and English will at an early age understand that a Maori sentence is different from an English sentence even if they couldn’t give you a definition of a sentence.

And here are some tips.

Grow the young person’s vocabulary – the number of words a learner can use with confidence will be the factor that identifies them as an advanced language learner or one that is catching up or lingering behind their peers. Words are the fuel of language. How many of us travel to foreign lands and get by with single words garbled because our ears aren’t up to it. Young people thrive in a situation where they are surrounded by real people who use lots of real words in real situations.

But this is not an invitation for parents to take over the talk. Janet Holmes tells the apocryphal story of the three year old who never uttered a word until one day at the dinner table she said “Would you please pass the salt?” An astonished parent sought an explanation as to why she had been silent until now to which she responded “Everything has been OK up till now!” Sit in a café and hear the parents taking over the responsibility for talking – usually in the third person. “Now, does Tommy want a muffin or a brioche? Mummy is going to have a brioche? I think Tommy would prefer a muffin? That’s what we will have today.” Child thinks: “Won’t be long and she will be back on to the iPhone!”

So children need to be surrounded by quality speakers of the language. Consider the impact on the development of young one’s when Celebrity A speaks on TV “Yeah, well, definitely – awesome, I mean to say – at the end of the day, well, brilliant!” Spot the sentence on that gob-full.

Finally, be relaxed about the young ones. The silent ones who don’t talk early will talk later (check for hearing issues though!) and they will use language at about the same level of sophistication as the early chatterers. And remember that talking is thinking. A silent brain is not an inactive brain. Children hear more than they appear to listen.

Vygotsky, the great Russian psycho-linguist, reminded us that “thoughts are not merely made up of words but come into being through them.” He uses the anecdote of the young boy who when challenged about something he had said replied “How do I know what I think till I see what I’ve said?”

It is very likely too early to predict that children are mutating into some kind of non-sentence-using little creatures. But do pay attention to the language environment in which they swim. It is probably the most important part of the child development eco-system.


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Bottling up the policy on Te Reo Maori

Hon Nanaia Mahuta thinks that the policy is compulsory Te Reo Maori in schools, Education Spokesperson Chris Hipkins thinks that well its important but….. While the rest of the MPs and most of the electorate have no idea what the Labour Party’s position is.

Never has the case been stronger for a policy of compulsory Te Reo Maori instruction and learning for all New Zealand school students but this is not the first time that the Labour leadership has lost its bottle on this one.

In the 1980s I was on a national curriculum group developing a syllabus for English in Form 6 – up to that point the sixth form had no syllabus and simply used examination prescriptions (who said the senior schools wasn’t all about going to university!).

A distinguished group of knowledgeable people (and me!) set about devising a strategy to teach about language at that level that was innovative and exciting. It was to be a study of English language based on a comparative linguistics approach. In other words, Sixth Form students were to learn about English language by comparing it to another language and that other language was to be Te Reo Maori.

There were compelling reasons for doing this.

Te Reo Maori was an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand therefore all citizens have some obligation to be acquainted with it.

More importantly, knowledge about language is more easily achieved when a student has a basis for comparison. In what ways is this language different from this other language that I already know? Most English speaking people who insist on and endorse the teaching of English grammar actually only learnt what they know about through an experience with another language. This was probably Latin or French, or German.

You do not need to know about English grammar in order to learn the language as a native speaker. But knowledge about how the English language works is essential if students aspire to be highly articulate and elegant in their expression and especially in their writing. So what better way to seek improvement of your first language (should that be English) than by studying a second language? And what better language to study than Te Reo Maori?

It is a language used around us – daily on television, radio and in many places and occasions in our daily lives – I hear much more Maori spoken than I do French or German.

Maori is also linguistically an excellent choice as it has a different vocabulary, an easy phonics system and a quite different structure. And it is an easy language to learn and pronounce. No!!! I hear some older people say but that is not the fault of Maori language, it is the consequqnece of not getting the opportunity to learn about it and to learn it at a time when we were young enough and our aural skills were acute enough to hear and retain the sounds which are different from English – another useful comparison.

So a policy of getting more Maori language instruction into schools is on very strong grounds and there is no danger of it not helping students to achieve higher levels of competence especially in English.

The dangers and risks are all political and that is where some courage is needed.

And who and when did a Labour leader lose his bottle? It was about 1985 or 1986 when the new Form 6 English Syllabus was circulated for comment and a certain lobby group within education got at David Lange and, goaded by allegations from the Opposition side of the House that NZ kids would all be gabbling Te Reo Maori but have no competence in English, and not for the last time he lost his bottle. It was enough for him to summarily dismiss the English Syllabus group which never met again.

New Zealand lost a chance to lead the way internationally to not only  bring an indigenous language into the mainstream curriculum but to also demonstrate the value of doing so to all the students who each require in order to achieve  and learn, knowledge about and skill in language at increasing levels throughout their educational journey.

So Chris Hipkins should stick his head up above the desktop and declare a strong policy of introducing Te Reo Maori into schools for all students. Not enough teachers, of course there is. They live in the street out the back of the school.

“Courage mon brave” and what a shame my own education sees me default to this exhortation rather than to “Kia kaha!”


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