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[xmca] Literature As Psycholinguistics
I know Slobin later turned this very interesting (and apparently very replicable) experimental result into a whole theory of bootstrapping, one of whose principles was that children learn to pay careful attention to ENDINGS; endings of words, endings of sentences, and endings of stories.
I think this applies to your "Where is Kitty?" example too. Of course, the child remembers BOTH the beginning and the ending. It’s always the middle that tends to fall out.
If we take a purely associationist view of meaning (including any of the associationist views of our own time, such as parallel distributed processing, or connectionism, or even chaos-complexity—in fact, any frequency based approach to meaning), this makes no sense. The word “is” is MUCH more common than either “where” or “Kitty”.
Slobin’s argument (as I understand it) is based on phonological salience. But this is pretty problematic as well. It’s perfectly true that the beginnings and ends of utterances (and syllables and even stories) are more salient than the middle bits. This has been offered by Choi and Gopnik as an explanation for why kids who learn SOV languages like Korean learn verbs before nouns while children who learn SVO languages like English learn nouns before verbs.
But vowels are mostly middle bits and consonants are mostly end bits, and children tend to get vowels before consonants, especially in their second language. Besides, I think the beginning and the ending are remembered for very different reasons because they have very different functions.
Slobin can’t really explain WHY endings are more memorable. But Vygotsky sure can. He insists on something usually translated as “predicativity”, which I prefer to translate as “predicationality”, which is relative in self-directed (Piaget’s “egocentric”) speech and then absolute in inner speech.
If we imagine that all words have both abstract, generalizeable, self similar “meaning” and concrete, specific, object-related “sense”, we can see that some words are more “meaningful” and others are more “sensible”. For example, the word “”Where” is more meaningful, and the word “Kitty” is more sensible. Meaning, of course, is rather more fragile than sense.
We can also see that meaning tends to occur at the BEGINNING of an utterance, to set the topic, and sense tends to occur at the ENDING. This is also true of exchanges:
What time is it?
In Chapter Seven of Thinking and Speech, Vygotsky's got something like this:
"If we turn from this comparison of inner speech with oral speech to the direct study of the structural special features of inner speech, we will be able to trace tendency towards predication step by step. At the very beginning egocentric speech is still completely merged with social speech in its structural relationship. But in proportion to its development and functional isolation as an independent and autonomous form of speech it reveals more and more a tendency towards reduction, towards a weakening of syntactic articulation, towards a semantic thickening. At the moment of its dying off and passing over into inner speech it produces the impression of interrupted, fragmented speech, since it is already almost wholly subordinated to a purely predicational syntax. Observation during the experiments shows every time how and from what source this new syntax of inner speech appears. The child speaks of what he is occupied with at a particular moment and on
a particular occasion, a propos of what he is now doing, about that which is located in before his very eyes. Therefore he greatly abbreviates, abridges, and condenses his subject and the words which are colligated with it and his speech is increasingly reduced to the predicate. With remarkable regularity, we can establish from these experiments the following rule: the more that more egocentric speech is expressed as such in its functional role, the more clearly appear the special features of its syntax in the sense of its simplification and predication. If we compare the egocentric speech of child when it appears in the specific role of inner speech as a means of comprehension in the face of the interferences and the difficulties which we introduced experimentally, with those cases when it was manifested outside of this function, it is possible to establish with certainty: the more strongly the specific intellectual function of inner speech as such
is expressed in it, the more distinctly the special features of its syntactic system emerge." (My translation of what appears paraphrased on on Minick p. 274).
Of course, English represents precisely such an “experimental difficulty” as far as the child is concerned. As a result, the child reduces his or her contributions to predicates, e.g.
T: Does Caillou like playing soccer when he couldn't kick the ball? (sic) Does he like it?
T: No. He doesn't like soccer. But later, when he kick the ball (sic) and he scores, does he like soccer?
This tendency towards the gradual evaporation of an utterance (functors first, then subjects, and last of all predicates) is a big problem for teachers in English class. We frequently find that conversations with children can be very tiring for a teacher because the teacher is required to supply ALL the subjects of a conversation and the children limit themselves to predication.
Consider the following three examples of egocentric speech in an English class:
a) reading aloud: “S: He is playing soccer.”
b) conversational shadowing “T: He is playing soccer” “S:He is play a soccer”
c) trying to write a sentence “S: h-e i-s …”
d) trying to figure out why “I’m a play soccer” is wrong. “I’m a…ani.he is…a..anida…eoryeowoyo (No, that's not it, no, that's not it, oooh, it's difficult).”
You can see that as we go from a) to d) we move from a situation where speech may be egocentric in MODE (that is, it is not externalized) but it is not egocentric in FUNCTION (that is, it is not self directed) to one where it is egocentric in both mode and function (that is, it is not externalized and it IS self-directed).
Now, the problem I'm having with this Chapter Seven is that the data is almost entirely LITERARY. Oh, I'm not worried about the fact that it's fictitious. But just like nonfictional approaches to inner speech, the direct insight into thought processes that we find in Tolstoy is largely introspective (which is why Levin sounds so annoyingly like Tolstoy himself). Introspective data (e.g. the questionnaire data and the “speak aloud” protocols we use in language research) is notoriously unreliable.
I think literature is actually BETTER than other introspective data, but it’s still introspective. I think it’s better because it’s checked against the VERBAL plane of other characters in a way that we don’t find in a lot of psychological research based on “think aloud” protocols (where children are often just trying to figure out what the teacher wants and either give it to her or give her the opposite). I think that most of Tolstoy’s genius actually went into his FEMALE characters, and that means that when he stopped getting along with his wife he very seriously went downhill (compare “Anna K.” or “War and Peace” with “The Kreutzer Sonata”, or “Resurrection” or any of Tolstoy’s later work and you will see what I mean).
It’s also better data because the psychological insights of realistic literature are SELECTED, first by the author, who decides whether they are psychologically realistic or not, and then by generations of readers, who decide whether the choices made by the author should live and be built on by other serious artists or be used to wrap fish in. This historical dimension really does give literature a certain validity as psychological data that the old Titchener and James stuff didn’t have. Literature represents folk theories of psychology that have been distilled and bottled in much the same way that science represents empirical theories of nature that have been experimentally refined and hierarchically arranged.
But there are real weaknesses to the method. For example, Vygotsky uses the famous scene where Levin proposes to Kitty, based on his own proposal to Sonia Bers to illustrate the PHONOLOGICAL reduction of speech in situations where there is a common orientation between two consciousnesses (see below).
This is a very good choice, as you can see. Tolstoy really is comparing this phonologically reduced common orientation with a maximally expanded differential orientation (the discussion about the Russian commune). But we are left with a Slobinesque analysis: why the INITIAL letters, and not the finals?
Final deletion at the phonological level is a well studied phenomenon in sociolinguistics. It accounts for the deletion of final consonants that we find in many contractions (“Sittin’ on yo’ mamy’s knee”), for the reduction of final diphthongs to simple vowels in pop songs (e.g. “bay-ba” instead of “baby”), for the tendency of front and back vowels to move towards the center vowel “schwa” when we speak quickly, etc.
But there is an equally well studied countervailing phenomenon as well: phonological expansion. French, for example, has an enormous number of silent letters, far more even than English. And the characters, in this case, are speaking French, because Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina in two languages (French for conversation and Russian for narration and therefore for inner speech), and it is for this reason that John Lyons declared the book untranslatable. You can translate one language into another. But how do you translate the transition from one language to another itself?
Seoul National University of Education
PS: (Here’s the Tolstoy, from the standard translation…)
The conversation fell on the village commune, in which Pestsov saw a sort of special principle, called by him the choral principle. Levin did not agree with Pestsov, nor with his brother, who had a special attitude of his own, both admitting and not admitting the significance of the Russian commune. But he talked to them, simply trying to reconcile and soften their differences. He was not in the least interested in what he said himself, and even less so in what they said; all he wanted was that they and everyone should be happy and contented. He knew now the one thing of importance; and that one thing was at first there, in the drawing room, and then began moving across and came to a standstill at the door. Without turning round he felt the eyes fixed on him, and the smile, and he could not help turning round. She was standing in the doorway with Shtcherbatsky, looking at him.
Levin had often noticed in discussions between the most intelligent people that after enormous efforts, and an enormous expenditure of logical subtleties and words, the disputants finally arrived at being aware that what they had so long been struggling to prove to one another had long ago, from the beginning of the argument, been known to both, but that they liked different things, and would not define what they liked for fear of its being attacked. He had often had the experience of suddenly in a discussion grasping what it was his opponent liked and at once liking it too, and immediately he found himself agreeing, and then all arguments fell away as useless. Sometimes, too, he had experienced the opposite, expressing at last what he liked himself, which he was devising arguments to defend, and, chancing to express it well and genuinely, he had found his opponent at once agreeing and ceasing to dispute his position. He tried to say this.
She knitted her brow, trying to understand. But directly he began to illustrate his meaning, she understood at once.
"I know: one must find out what he is arguing for, what is precious to him, then one can..."
She had completely guessed and expressed his badly expressed idea. Levin smiled joyfully; he was struck by this transition from the confused, verbose discussion with Pestsov and his brother to this laconic, clear, almost wordless communication of the most complex ideas.
Shtcherbatsky moved away from them, and Kitty, going up to a card table, sat down, and, taking up the chalk, began drawing diverging circles over the new green cloth.
They began again on the subject that had been started at dinner-the liberty and occupations of women. Levin was of the opinion of Darya Alexandrovna that a girl who did not marry should find a woman`s duties in a family. He supported this view by the fact that no family can get on without women to help; that in every family, poor or rich, there are and must be nurses, either relations or hired.
"No," said Kitty, blushing, but looking at him all the more boldly with her truthful eyes; "a girl may be so circumstanced that she cannot live in the family without humiliation, while she herself..."
At the hint he understood her.
"Oh, yes," he said. "Yes, yes, yes--you`re right; you`re right!"
And he saw all that Pestsov had been maintaining at dinner of the liberty of woman, simply from getting a glimpse of the terror of an old maid`s existence and its humiliation in Kitty`s heart; and loving her, he felt that terror and humiliation, and at once gave up his arguments.
A silence followed. She was still drawing with the chalk on the table. Her eyes were shining with a soft light. Under the influence of her mood he felt in all his being a continually growing tension of happiness.
"Ah! I`ve scribbled all over the table!" she said, and laying down the chalk, she made a movement as though to get up.
"What! shall I be left alone--without her?" he thought with horror, and he took the chalk. "Wait a minute," he said, sitting down to the table. "I`ve long wanted to ask you one thing."
He looked straight into her caressing, though frightened eyes.
"Please, ask it."
"Here," he said; and he wrote the initial letters, w, y, t, m, i, c, n, b, d, t, m, n, o, t. These letters meant, "When you told me it could never be, did that mean never, or then?" There seemed no likelihood that she could make out this complicated sentence; but he looked at her as though his life depended on her understanding the words. She glanced at him seriously, then leaned her puckered brow on her hands and began to read. Once or twice she stole a look at him, as though asking him, "Is it what I think?"
"I understand," she said, flushing a little. "What is this word?" he said, pointing to the n that stood for never.
"It means NEVER," she said; "but that`s not true!"
He quickly rubbed out what he had written, gave her the chalk, and stood up. She wrote, t, i, c, n, a, d.
Dolly was completely comforted in the depression caused by her conversation with Alexey Alexandrovitch when she caught sight of the two figures: Kitty with the chalk in her hand, with a shy and happy smile looking upwards at Levin, and his handsome figure bending over the table with glowing eyes fastened one minute on the table and the next on her. He was suddenly radiant: he had understood. It meant, "Then I could not answer differently."
He glanced at her questioningly, timidly.
"Yes," her smile answered.
"And n...and now?" he asked.
"Well, read this. I`ll tell you what I should like--should like so much!" she wrote the initial letters, i, y, c, f, a, f, w, h. This meant, "If you could forget and forgive what happened."
He snatched the chalk with nervous, trembling fingers, and breaking it, wrote the initial letters of the following phrase, "I have nothing to forget and to forgive; I have never ceased to love you."
She glanced at him with a smile that did not waver.
"I understand," she said in a whisper.
He sat down and wrote a long phrase. She understood it all, and without asking him, "Is it this?" took the chalk and at once answered.
For a long while he could not understand what she had written, and often looked into her eyes. He was stupefied with happiness. He could not supply the word she had meant; but in her charming eyes, beaming with happiness, he saw all he needed to know. And he wrote three letters. But he had hardly finished writing when she read them over her arm, and herself finished and wrote the answer, "Yes."
"You`re playing secretaire?" said the old prince. "But we must really be getting along if you want to be in time at the theater."
Levin got up and escorted Kitty to the door.
In their conversation everything had been said; it had been said that she loved him, and that she would tell her father and mother that he would come tomorrow morning.
(Notice that “he would come tomorrow morning” is also a reduction, but it is by no means phonological: Kitty means that Levin will come and ask for her hand in marriage.)
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