Years ago I studied language development. In college I majored in the Russian language, and became an interpreter for a few years. I went to graduate school to learn more about how languages develop, how they are learned, how they evolve. I studied linguistics, language acquisition, developmental syntax and the history of language. I got a Master’s Degree in Speech/language Pathology and spent the next twenty five years teaching children with language disorders.
So you would think that I’d have a pretty good grasp of how people hear, understand and use spoken language. Right?
You’d be wrong.
And that’s because there is an annual phenomenon that I simply cannot explain. It happens without fail every spring. It is a linguistic anomaly which is as predictable as the blossoming of the daffodils or the calling of the peepers. It is not hard to describe. It goes like this:
The weather warms up, the snow goes away, the state tests are completed and the entire fifth grade loses its ability to understand the English language. Or any other oral language emanating from the mouth of an adult in a classroom.
The kids still look the same; adorable, sweet faced, smiling. They still sit in their usual seats (most of the time) and they still look up at me with innocent and trusting eyes. Its just that no matter what I say, or how clearly I say it, or how often it is repeated and rephrased, the vast majority of them hear me saying something else.
Yesterday I was desperately trying to get my class of energetic eleven year olds to complete and hand in an important writing assignment. I need to put this piece of writing into their portfolios, you see, and time is running out.
As we got ready to go to the computer lab, I got their attention and said, “You must bring your writing prompt and directions, your planning sheet and your rough draft.” Then I said it again. Then I said it in a different order. Then I asked them to raise their hands “If you have your prompt and directions, your planning sheet and your rough draft.” All 25 hands went up, and we left the room. I got them all settled at their computers, and two hands shot up immediately.
“What were we supposed to bring with us?”
This is how it goes, all day every day in May and June in elementary school. I know that they aren’t doing it on purpose. They love me! They don’t actually want to see my head explode.
But I say, “Please take out your math book.” and they hear “We’re going to the Cape tomorrow!”
I say, “Raise your hand if you know the meaning of the word ‘inertia'”. They hear, “I feel a sweat ball running down my back.”
I try to be firm, and to make my voice louder. They notice that I sound like a fog horn, which reminds them of Grampa’s cottage at the beach, which makes them wonder if they’ll get sparklers this year for the fourth of July.
So I try to be funny, you know? Keep them laughing. Reel them in. They burst into gales and peals of hilarity which immediately gets them into sleepover mode which I can’t get them out of no matter what I say.
I say, “Here is your homework.” they hear, “Let’s just all go home.”
I say, “HIstory lesson.”, they hear “mmmm. S’mores”
There is no known linguistic or psychological explanation for this annual phenomenon, but I can name you 75 teachers who will attest to its reality.
Maybe next week I can gather some data. I’ll say, “It’s too hot. Let’s just go outside and play.”
I bet they’ll understand that!