The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


December 2015

Photon Candons

leonard-nimoy-393861_1280My son and I were building Star Trek ships out of Legos once, and he told me about one of the parts he’d built – “This is a photon candon.”

I said, “Cannon.”

He said, “No,” before emphasizing the word, “Photon.” Pause. “It’s a photon candon.”

“A cannon.”

“No!” He got very irritated with my denseness at this point. “A photon candon!”

I finally understood the reason for his frustration, and so I naturally decided to put more effort into correcting him. Until this point I’d been admittedly more absorbed in my building of the USS Enterprise (or “USF Enterprise” as my son seemed stuck on saying) than with correcting his speech.

“It’s a photon cannon. You meant to say cannon. There’s no such thing as a candon.”

One could see the wheels of his mind turning by the expression on his face. He then very quietly said, “Cannon. Cannon. Cannon,” before announcing, “This is a photon cannon.” A few minutes later he called it a candon again.

Later, this episode got my own wheels turning. My son frequently did this sort of thing. The incorrect word would get “stuck” in his head despite him never having first heard the word.  This is a point worth repeating: He’d never heard the word “candon.” Why would anyone use a word without first having heard it?

Experience also told me not to worry. Anderson would not forever be doomed to a life of being made fun of for his inability with this word. He would not have to sweat out any future job interviews, praying the word “cannon” would not somehow pop up. He would learn how this word is actually used in our language, and probably pretty soon. There had been many words like this before – breafkast for breakfast, cockapit for cockpit, college cheese for cottage cheese, hootel for hotel, and cans of city for Kansas City, among many others. All of these incorrect production have since gone extinct. But why does this happen, and what does it say for how we learn language?

Some thoughts:

– This happens in phonology (e.g. pour for four), but these are simplifications almost always; candon for cannon is not a simplification.

– My theory is that the mind records an imprint of a word the first time this word is attended to (contrasting with the first time the word is heard).  The attention can occur in self talk, or it could be misheard and then imprinted as the incorrect hearing.

– Things can also go wrong in the recall of the word. The memory may distort it just as memories are distorted all the time. The initial imprint could also have been recorded incorrectly to memory, i.e., it could have been “misheard.”

– These imprints get reinforced. They can be reinforced by talking or thinking to one’s self or by using the word without being corrected. The more reinforcement the more permanent the imprint.

– This may be a significant cause of speech and language disorders.

We Are Not (Usually) Teaching Metalinguistics

Something keeps popping up from time to time, which after its most recent occurrence, reminded me of something I can do to improve my own collaboration with teachers regarding my language teaching.  I was told something like this again:  “I don’t think (the student) is ready to learn prepositions.  We’re just working on what nouns and verbs are, and even that’s difficult for a lot of the kids.”

Many professionals do not understand that when we are teaching a language skill, such as prepositions, we are not teaching metalinguistic skills.  We are not working on knowing the different parts of speech.  Many teachers, as well as parents, think that our goals toward specific deficits are that we are teaching kids to understand what prepositions are, for this example, and not as is actually the case, using prepositions as a grouping for kids that have difficulty with specific types of words that their peers normally don’t have.  I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain that I am not teaching a child what prepositions are, or what pronouns or adjectives are, but rather I’m teaching them to be able to use and understand these groups of words as well as their peers can.  But, this is something I need to improve.  Too often, I’ve just assumed they know this, when I should instead be assuming that they don’t.

So, my plan is that in the future whenever I mention to anyone what specific language skill a specific child is working on, I will try to automatically include that we are working on things such as following directions with the target and using the target in conversation.  I will try to include examples.  And although I may include a bit about how it may be helpful to explain to the student what these types of words do, that is not the goal.

Using the example of prepositions again, I’m thinking it will sound a little something like this:  “We’ll be working on prepositions, such as inonabove, and below.  Although we may try to increase his understanding that we’re working on ‘where words,’ I will not be working on him knowing what these words are.  Rather, I will target the specific words themselves which he has particular difficulty using in his conversation and understanding when others are talking and giving directions.”

Maybe this is another one of those cases in which a little bit of extra work now can not only benefit the kids and teachers, but also save me from doing more work in the future.

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