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[xmca] When Speech Thinks

Take a look at this:
"A report by the Education Trust found that 23 percent of recent high school graduates don't get the minimum score needed on the enlistment test to join any branch of the military. Questions are often basic, such as: "If 2 plus x equals 4, what is the value of x?"'
Suppose we REPHRASE the question, like this:
a) "If 2 + 2 = x, what is the value of x?"
Now the response rate is probably MUCH higher (though I don't know how high).
What about these?
b) "If 4 minus 2 = x, what is the value of x?
c) "If 4 minus x = 2 what is the value of x?"
d) "If x plus 2 = 4, what is the value of x?"
Let's say they find a) much easier to say and even much easier to solve, just as it is easier to sing the alphabet song forwards ("A, b, c, d...") than it is to sing it backwards ("Z, y, x, w...."), The question is WHY? Is it just habit?
Yes, but habit has to be explained too. Speech thinks. Because of the way we talk, a) really is easier to conceptualize; it's easier to start with known information than it is to start with unknown information. For example, question forms in English are notoriously DIFFICULT to master, because they begin with unknown information. 
In contrast, languages that place "relative clauses" BEFORE the noun (e.g. Korean and Chinese) always tend to have shorter relative clauses than those which place modifying relative clauses AFTER the noun (e.g. English) because it's very hard to store an attribute in the memory without any concrete carrier to hold it (and for the same reason English sentences avoid putting more than three or four adjectives in front of a noun and tend to say things like "a hard round rubber ball with a scratch on it" instead of a "scratched hard round rubber ball".
The problem is that explanations like this end up privileging one language over another. That may be true in the short run; it may, for example, be easier to learn to read English than it is to read Chinese if you are a seven year old. But in the long run, it cannot really make any difference, else the literacy rates would be very markedly different in the adult population as well. 
The other day in class we discussed the fact that "life cycle" is morphologically linked to "bicycle" in English, but not in Korean, which refers to a bicycle as a "self-powered vehicle" rather than as two cyclic objects. This is an incidental fact of the language, and it is useful to know in teaching but does not represent for Koreans a serious learning handicap and is not generalizable into teaching methods. 
It's like the fact that in French in order to say the number "92" you really have to say something like "four times twenty plus twelve". You don't actually have to THINK it, but you DO have to say it.This doesn't mean that English people find it easier to use decimals, while some vestige of French mathematical thought uses a base twenty number system.
Of course, there are aspects of the language that DO generalize: for example, English is cursed with the system of using the plural for the universal concept, in sentences like "I like apples". In contrast, we have a relatively neat system of relative clauses which allow us to include LOTS of modifiers on a noun as a long, long, tail. 
But these too do not represent a serious learning handicap, precisely because they ARE so very general. Through convergent evolution, English speakers have come up with shortcuts that allow them to express the universal just as clearly as Korean speakers and Chinese speakers do (e.g. "Marriage is a market", not "marriages are markets") and Chinese/Korean speakers can express complex ideas with many short noun phrases just as well as English speakers can do it with long ones. 
Sometimes, speech thinks for us. But when that happens, fortunately, there are ways of getting thought to speak, and in the long run those will win out.
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education 

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