Saturday, March 2, 2013

Autism Diaries XLIV: Grammar tracking

An excerpt from one of my recent exchanges with J:

J: "The stronger the bonds, the higher the melting point."
Me: "What lesson is that from?"

J: "Level III, Lesson 23."
No, I wasn't asking him which chemistry lesson he'd learned this content knowledge from. Instead, I was asking him which GrammarTrainer lesson he'd learned this grammatical structure from. And he still knew not only that that was what I was asking him, but also what the correct answer was.

Just about 10 years ago, J became the first student to use my GrammarTrainer software. In fact, he was both its raison d'ĂȘtre and its guinea pig, going through it while it was still a work in progress, zealously beta-testing it for bugs. Often he'd be just a lesson or two behind me as I rushed to alpha test each new lesson, hoping to preclude any pauses in instruction. The program--if I do say so myself--was doing such a good job expanding J's comprehension and his clarity of expression that I wanted him to get through all the syntactic phenomena of English as expeditiously as possible.

By the time J was midway through Level III, he was remembering more and more consistently to add the "s" sound to present tense verbs with third personal singular subjects ("J likes fans on"; "Mommy wants them off")--which happens to be one of the more common grammatical challenges for a significant subsector of the autistic population. He was also able to understand and use the passive voice, and to invert questions with the correct auxiliaries ("Where did you put the remote?"). But he was still garbling more complex structures, and one that particularly cried out for remediation was "I am easy to do math."

What J meant to say, of course, was "Math is easy for me to do." And simple though it looks, this sentence involves a somewhat complex process that linguists call "Tough Movement": a transformation that derives it from the syntactically more basic "Doing math is easy for me." Tough Movement applies to the small but frequently-used set of adjectives and adjectival phrases that express degrees of difficulty--like "easy," "hard," and ... "tough." GrammarTrainer needed a lesson on Tough Movement!

While J finished up the current lesson, I programmed in Tough Movement. And when J typed in "The boy is easy to do math," this is what he saw:

He started laughing. For the first time, it really hit him what was going on. GrammarTrainer lessons were a direct response to his real-life grammar errors! Always thrilled with provoking a predictable response, he reveled in this revelation.

From then on, whenever J contemplated the ungrammaticality of sentences like "I am easy to do math," he'd ask me, "Is that why you made Lesson 23 in Level III?"

And even today, when he's moved far beyond the syntactic phenomena of English all the way to Honors Chemistry, he can still map his acquisition of particular phenomena to specific lessons of GrammarTrainer, remembering details about the program that I myself can no longer spontaneously recall.

For example:


TerriW said...

I'm having a hard time coming up with a sentence for the moon and trees with those words that *does* use "depend."

(Though I've failed three times now to prove to Blogger that I'm not a robot. That may be my problem.)

Crimson Wife said...

Any guess from a linguistic standpoint as to why my autistic daughter persists in using the phrase "Where we happen?" for "what happened?" Obviously this is not something that she's imitating since no NT speaker would ever use it. She doesn't use the past tense yet in any of her speech, so I get that part. But the rest of the errors I don't understand.

Katharine Beals said...

"How low the moon is depends on how late it is."

(This is the other structure being taught, so sometimes one is asked to use "depend").

Katharine Beals said...

Crimson Wife,

It's hard to say, not knowing more about your daughter. Could she have an auditory processing problem that's causing her to mishear the sounds in "what happened"? Could she be having difficulties with articulation of final consonants like "t" and "d"? In both these cases you should see other examples of this in her speech.

If it's specific to "what happened"/"Where we happen," it could be an instance of a faulty sound-meaning association (at the phrase level), but then the question is, when would she have heard "where we happen?"

Does she show other linguistic idiosyncrasies? Where is she in terms of overall language development?

Crimson Wife said...

She is 4 1/2 and while she has made quite a bit of progress in terms of her expressive language in the past year, she is still only about the level of a typical 2 1/2 to 3 y.o. Pronouns are very, very difficult for her (her SLP says this is common with autism). She does often use the phrase "where did it go?" so perhaps she is confused about the meanings of "what" vs. "where".