Friday, June 08, 2007

it's all relative

This may seem arcane to some of my readers, but if you're in the position I'm in (that is, missing your glasses, late at night, after spending a week grading endless papers), it's a subject of great interest. I've watched hundreds or thousands of students stumble through the upper levels of our program, some never acquiring relative clauses, others picking them up quite easily but stumbling on other things.

Now I don't believe that it's all genetic, or natural, or that there is a universal order that all language learners will follow on their way to fluency. Sure, they'll pick up relative clauses after they pick up basic sentences, but that's obvious. A tougher question would be: are they all at the same stage of development when they do pick them up? I'm not sure. And, you can run them through a grammar class where you teach them relative clauses explicitly, and it will only make a tiny difference: they will use them for about a week. Then they'll go back to whatever they were doing before. I can't be sure of this though; I only see some of their writing.

In any case, I'm especially interested in two kinds of learners. The first are Arabic speakers, who seem to have something like relative clauses in Arabic, but whose native relative clauses leave a trace, as I believe they would say in my linguistics class. Thus, they'll say, Carbondale is a city that I like it. The "it" is a trace left behind when "that" presumably moved.

What's interesting about this is that, because both languages have lots of relative clauses (use them easily, in many circumstances), Arabic speakers appear to acquire them fairly easily, early in the game. But, because of the trace, you can have a clue that they didn't construct the sentence with native English logic. Constructed in Arabic, it comes out with a relative clause that is flawless, except for the trace which gives away the translation. One could in fact argue that they have not been acquired at all; they are just being used as part of a translation. Which brings up one thorny issue in the measuring of "acquisition".

But the other case is that of Japanese, which has slightly more possibilities of making complex noun structures as appeared for example in the following sentence: "Eighty percent of the people use energy comes from hydroelectric dams." Now we native English speakers would about have to use "energy that people use" - a relative clause - in this sentence, but this speaker obviously didn't feel it was necessary, or didn't want to. Or, was unable to.

I'm interested in the chain of thought in cases like this- and I'm interested in how to change it, since that would represent acquisition I'd like to get to the bottom of it. Comments, anecdotes welcome.

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