syntax

Nothing more dramatic of the autonomy of syntax — the module in the mind that allows words to bring sentence structures together — than in the first hours and days (though less so) recognizing the individual words on every written page, yet unable to understand a single sentence. This seems to have been partly true of speech too, but the speech flow does not usually distinguish words individually the way the written word does. But even I understood “hello,” clearly, within the first half hour of the stroke. To find my name, I looked at my e-mail address to read the word. I recognized that single word-name. When I then googled “brain blood” to remind the word “stroke,” I quickly recognized “stroke” as soon as the wikipedia article entitled it appeared. I not only recognized the word, I understood it.

And yet, I couldn’t understand a single sentence.

It’s true that much of what we say in social circumstances don’t exploit our innovative syntax generator machine. Most of what we say in a day we either repeat formulaic catch phrases or, even in a flurry of witty repartee, we rarely construct anything beyond a few short, simple, basic sentences.

In intimate and serious discussion, all of a sudden sentences become new and more complex. A discussion with an old acquiantance about catching up — about theater, about our past, about relationships, about life — all these required complex innovative constructions during which I failed often to express intentions. Ironically, familiar catch phrases got mangled, “made a killing,” “easier said than done,” tripping me at length.

For speech therapy, absent any means to recreate lost syntax, there may be no better effort than encouraging the use of simple sentences and formulaic expressions. But is there a way of step-by-step recreating syntax?

The steps I lack, that I’ve noticed, include agreement (number in both nouns and verbs as well as tense agreement), agent/object distinctions, odd choices of prepositions or verbal sattelites (in Talmy’s sense), syncopation of “be” and other occasional omissions, and a preference for underived or uninflected lexical items causing mistaken parts of speech.

I haven’t tried systemcatically to practice these in speech. Writing is a kind of practice, but so much more deliberate: when you slowly practice a tricky musical passage, you get to be expert at playing it slowly, but only slowly; it doesn’t always help learning to play it a tempo. Speed requires a different skill, a different movement and relationship among movements.

I’d imagine that speech practice would require immediate flagging of error and immediate correction, assuming it is at all possible that the syntax module can be coaxed at all, and not just simply lost and gone. Syntax is a skill of the developmental period, and it may not be amenable to adult learning from scratch.

The alternate to speech practice is listening to complex speech. I’ve been listening to difficult speakers on line — pundits and media mavens. But it would be good from time to time to listen not only complex speakers, but also, occasionally, slow complex speakers. Replay is not the same as learning to understand on line as the words form in the speech flow. Repeating after the whole sentence has already heard altogether, giving a difference advantage to the sentence from the slow step-by-step yet unfamiliar.

2 Responses to “syntax”

  1. Dorothy Ross Says:

    There is a software developed specifically for regaining syntax in aphasia. It is called SentenceShaper. I have not used it myself, so I do not know if it would be appropriate.

    I recommend to my clients who are able to read, to read aloud. Reading aloud provides a correct model of sentence structures as well as expanding vocabulary, and helps to strengthen the connections between internal language and external speech. It also provides a way of talking at length without having to think of something to say.

    Another approach is English as a Second Language workbooks. These frequently provide extensive structured practice in syntax, though it may be at a basic level. The series that I like is Side By Side. There is an extensive selection at Barnes and Noble on 18th Street.

    I disagree that syntax can only be learned in childhood. Many adults learn another language, including syntax. In fact, syntax is easier to learn than phonetics, e.g., speaking without an accent. The reason adults do not learn as well is because of lack of practice. It takes many hours of talking and listening to master a language, and earlier in the process graded difficulty is needed.

    I had the opportunity to interview elderly people, some of whom had immigrated from Germany after WWII. I could not tell the difference between the native English speakers and those who had acquired English as adults. I believe their success was because they had total immersion into English after they arrived in this country.

  2. rob Says:

    It is true that adults can learn new languages, but it’s also true that learners who have acquired a second language during adolescence, are able to learn new languages easily, while those who have been monolingual through adolescence find learning a new language one of the most difficult of tasks in adult life.

    This implies that early bilinguals develop a syntactic network that allows new languages to incorporate into it, whereas monolinguals’ syntax is fixed to their monolingual lexicon and phonological system. And it further implies that if the syntax system is lost, then, for monolinguals and multilinguals alike, they lose their entire developmental system. None of these are entailed, just implications. The evidence would be finding out whether multilinguals who have genuine fluency in many languages, lose only one language’s syntax but not another language’s syntax.

    Of course, any adult, with work, can learn a new language. But I wonder whether they achieve the same fluency and facility as early bilinguals.

    Continental Europeans have much greater contact with other languages earlier than anglo-Americans, and, in addition, WWII refugees who are still around must have emigrate during adolescence.

    It would be interesting to compare between monolingual Americans with multilingual Americans (Spanish/English, Chinese/English, Taishan/Mandarin/English, Cantonese/Taishan/English, Bangladeshi/English, Arabic/English, Chinese/Spanish, Yiddish/English) of like aphasics. There’s a rich field.

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