24
Feb
12

You Can’t Learn Language by Imitation: The Case of “a”, “an” , “the” and “some”

For children with Language Learning  Disorders, the process of acquiring  skills is in part the very intricacy of language. In order for you have to appreciate their struggles, you have to be aware of the stunning nature of this intricacy. Indeed, the subtleties of language are such that one wonders how anyone can acquire any language, especially since so little of it is taught in any but the most tangential ways. Yet you did acquire these subtleties. And what helps a lot, what you must also apprecitate is the orderliness of the rules of language. For in the end, it is these rules that must be learned, not so much the individual sounds and words. For it is in trying to learn these rules that children with Langauge Learning Disorders  become so frustrated and defeated.

Of the most elementary yet intricate of linguistic forms the most common are called “Articles” (a, an, some and the) . They are  governed by a set of rules defining their uses in sentences. These rules, about which we are almost wholly unconscious, define which utterances are legitimate and which are not.

For example, you can say 1)”I’ll have a soda“. But you can’t ordinarily say 2) “I’ll have a gravy”.  So, what’s the difference?  The article “a” is followed by a noun in each case. So why can you say   #1 but not #2?  How can you assert with such authority that #1 is “right” and #2 is “wrong”? And  who taught you?

First, you have to be aware of the fact that most nouns can be divided into two great categories. The first set includes nouns like antelope, urchin, cat and highway.  This category is huge, and its members are called “Count” nouns.  They refer to separable, individual units and so  they can  be “counted”.  Logically,  they can be pluralized (antelopeS, catS, urchinS)

The second set includes nouns like gravy, sand, flour, meat and dust among  many others. These are called “Mass” nouns. They do not refer to an individual entity but more to an undifferentiated “mass”.  Generally they cannot be pluralized (flourS or sandS).

In general, a, an, the or some can be used with count nouns (the cat, an urchin). With mass nouns, only the or some can normally be used (the gravy, some sand).

However, a or an may be used before a mass noun if the item referenced by the article is construed as a separate or self-contained entity.  For example, in “I’ll have a milk” the “a” is legitimate if  that milk is in a container of some sort. “A sand” is also legitimate if you are referring to a specific sort of sand. e.g. “A good sand for building castles can be found on the beach”.

Mass nouns are flexible.  Variations abound.  If, for instance, you go into a diner for breakfast and want butter for your pancakes, you can say, “I’ll have A butter ” and it will be served up in pat or sealed container. On the other hand, if you say, “I’ll have Some butter“, you will get it in whatever form the diner chooses. But if you say, “I’ll have The butter” the waitress may regard you quizically as if you were asking for all the butter that the diner has . . . . unless:

1.) the diner offers other pancake toppings (sour cream?, marshmallow?) OR

2.) the waitress already knows how you want the butter served (e.g. as a “regular” cutomer)

Based on these rules, you cannot say things like,” My mother wiped a butter off her shoe.” unless you want your listener to think she had one spot of butter on her shoe (by the way, you can’t say, “She had one butter on her shoe.” either). And you can only say ,” My mother wiped the butter off her shoe” if both you and she know that it’s there.

How anyone learns all these rules without anyone ever explaining them, much less drilling you on them, is a great mystery to theorists and language specialists alike. That these rules for article usage are far more extensive than indicated above only deepens the mystery. But it certainly eliminates the “explanation” that says we learn language by imitation. And it surely helps us understand how our children with Language Learning Disorders struggle so.

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