Hilary Van Loon
- Originally from Ottawa, Ontario, I have spent the last four years in Halifax pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology at Dalhousie University. I am interested in pursuing a PhD in Sports Psychology in the future, and hope a background in Psycholinguistics will help me both understand and accommodate the different communication abilities and preferences of the coaches and athletes I will be working with.
I have wrestled with the concepts of absolute and relative location or direction on more than one occasion. More than one family road trip has been tarnished by my inability to identify the cottage we were renting as "Northwest of Muskoka" (Dad, that's EXACTLY what I said, above it and to the leftish!) or the dog's kennel as "20km south of the city". My excuse is that I am a product of a different generation, one in which my peers rely on gas stations and fast food restaurants to convey direction. Everything is described in relation to something bigger or more prominent, some building or landmark that is an extension of our society's preoccupation with consumerism. I cringe when my 8 year old cousin tells me her house is a little bit past the McDonalds, but the reality is that the language of absolute directions is an acquired skill that, in my opinion, is no longer being explicitly developed. North and South are the vocabulary of absolute directions, and much like French or Spanish vocabulary, they are learned and reinforced through repeated exposure and practice. I would be as uncomfortable following directions to a church that asked me to turn East onto such-and-such a street as I would be following directions written in Dutch. The mini experiment Dr Newman conducted in class that asked the participant to arrange the animals in the same direction when sitting in a new orientation made me think about the geographic language I am comfortable with, and the one that I think in. I'm going to make yet another concerted effort to develop my ability to use cardinal directions. When I really think about it, it makes me a little bit uncomfortable to know that I describe most things as they relate to myself, like I am the point around which these things orbit.
A few years ago, I travelled to New Zealand and spent six months travelling around the country, soaking in their culture and getting to know the locals. Friday's lecture on phonotactic rules made me wonder about the structure of Maorie, the language of New Zealand's native population. Maori has the same vowels as English (a, e, i, o, u), but only 10 consonants (p, t, k, m, n,. ng, wh, r, h, and w). These letters make similar sounds as they do in English, except that 'wh' sounds like an 'f'. While phonotactic rules in English allow consonants to be paired together, such as in frame or stain, every consonant must be followed by a vowel in Maori. Similarly, all Maori words end with a vowel. I learned a few basic words and phrases in Maori while I was travelling, but I paid little attention to the rules that guided and restricted the formation of their words. I think its really interesting that English and Maori share most of the same sounds, but follow a completely different set of phonotactic rules.
The concept of elision was discussed during lecture this week, and I was very curious about this deletion of a sound from words, and its prevalence in other languages. Having a fairly good grasp of the French language, I am familiar with "liaisons", which are prevalent in both written and spoken French. Elisions occur formally when an article ends with a vowel and precedes a word that starts with a vowel. The words are joined together and the vowel at the end of the article is replaced with an apostrophe, so that "le arbre" is always written as "l'arbre". I found it very interesting that French has made formal grammatical accommodations and rules that mandate elision in certain contexts. I can't think of any such examples in written English. French also uses less formal liaisons in spoken communication. Liaisons occur when the final sound of a word is drawn out and linked with the first sound in the following word, so that no pause occurs in between the two. It occurs most often when the first sound of the second word is a vowel. For example, the phrase "une amie" sounds more like "unamie", or "les hommes" is pronounced "lesommes". There are situations in which a liaison is not possible, where it is mandatory, and where it occurs in variation based on dialect or accent. I find it interesting that, in English, elision is the result of poor pronunciation or annunciation, usually as a result of laziness, whereas in French, proper use of the liaison reflect a greater grasp of the language and a more native-language-sounding French accent.
This weeks class schedule was disrupted by the snowstorm and Munro day, so the only material covered was morphology during Monday's lecture. I was reading a little more about morphology in English, and came across an example that reminded me of standardized testing questions. The article was demonstrating how people can extrapolate or expand a rule to cover many different words. The example they used was "cat is to cats as dog is to dogs". This reminded of the questions that are often used as SAT questions or on other standardized tests. I remember getting tripped up by these questions, where you would be given one pair of words, and then asked to infer their relationship and extrapolate it to find the most similar matching pair. The relationships between the words could be really complex, and you really had to sift through the different aspects of the words to figure out what they had in common. I was never really sure what these questions tapped into, or what skill set they were evaluating. I guess it tests your abstract thinking, and people who have a greater understanding of the words can infer more complex relationships. I would be interested to know how these questions would work in other languages that dont use bound morphemes?
Word meaning and vocabulary size are a particular area of personal interest. When I was young, my dad made an active effort to teach me to read before I started school. This extra time and practice mean I was a better reader than many of my classmates, and as such, reading was something I really enjoyed. If offered an escape and a distraction, and also served to boost my confidence as it was something I excelled at. When my little sister was about to start school however, my dad was away for several months, and so she didn't learn to read until after she started school. I think this difference in experience had a significant impact on the subsequent course of our academic careers. I have always been an avid reader and have sought out books to challenge myself, whereas my sister hasn't read a book that was assigned for school in many years. This piqued my interest about the relationship between reading ability and vocabulary size, and the subsequent benefits of having a large vocabulary. I did a little bit of research and found several studies that linked early reading ability to academic success later in life. It makes sense that the more words, sentences, meanings, etc a person is exposed to, the more words and contextual meanings they will have access to later on. I wonder then why more parents don't make a more conscious effort to teach their children to read at an earlier age. If reading ability is such a strong predictor of a variety of intellectual abilities later in life, maybe the curriculum in kindergarden needs to be re-evaluated. For example, I know that in Ontario, kids start school at the age of 3, whereas in Nova Scotia most chidlren don't start school until they are 4. Does this difference, which would most likely also reflect a similar delay in learning to read, lead to differences in reading ability and vocabulary size later in life? I think this may be something school boards and the ministry of education may want to take a look at in order to help kids get the best possible start in their education.
I read an excerpt from a very interesting book the other day, entitled Music, Language and the Brain (A. D. Patel, 2010). According to Patel, infants are born with two distinct sound systems, one for language, and one for music. While these are disting systems, they are closely related, and learning in one system impacts the other system. For example, Patel states that in learning their native language, children develop a "mental framework of sound categories" that impacts their interpretation of their cultures dominant forms of music (9, 2010). I started thinking about the appreciation I have for music of other cultures, and how this may be influenced by the way my brain has developed to accommodate the English language. I would argue that most people appreciate music that is similar to their `native`music most easily, which may stem from the way our sound system influences our ability to perceive truly and clearly. For example, I remember reading that in Western music, there are certain note combinations that you rarely, if ever, see. To our ears, they do not sound desirable. However, these note combinations may be found in the music of other cultures, and vice versa. I would be very interested in learning more about how exposure to a wide variety of types of music influences ability to learn languages. Classical music is often played to babies in utero, but maybe playing italian opera or french folk music would lay the foundation for a sound system that would facilitate multiple language development later on in life. I wonder if exposure to different variations in pitch and timbre through music would correlate at all to language acquisition later on in life.