Language: January 2010 Archives

Ethan's speech pathologist sent home his report from his evaluation for his upcoming triennial review. Two things about it seem a little strange.

1. One of the tests aimed to discover how well Ethan uses appropriate pronouns. The speech pathologist seems to acknowledge this particular problem. The report says:

On many occasions, Ethan provided an appropriate response to the given sentence, however since it was not the targeted response, credit was not allowed (e.g Ethan was shown a picture of a school choir and given the sentence "the choir has a song to sing -- who will sing a song". Ethan replied with "the choir", however the targeted response was "they will").

In ordinary English, "the choir" is actually a more natural response to that question than "they will". Ethan's response is actually superior to the officially-accepted one, taking just the question in isolation. Only if you know that the rules of the game expect you to respond with a sentence including a pronoun will you prefer "they will". Even then, it sounds sort of artificial, but a student who understands the pragmatics of the conversation might do all right on this question. A student with problems involving the pragmatics of conversation will almost certainly not. Ethan has problems with the pragmatics of conversation, which means this question will not test what it's supposed to be testing, which is the proper use of pronouns, but rather the pragmatic ability to discover the conversational rules of the language game being played. So this seems to be a badly-designed test. I wonder how the rest of the test is. This is the only example she gave.

2. Another test involved recognizing semantic absurdities. Presumably with an eight-year-old kid they won't be asking things on the level of the liar paradox, but I would hope they could do better than the example the speech pathologist gave in her report. She says that he couldn't recognize that the sentence, "The plumber fixed the lights" is silly. I can't either. My uncle was a plumber, and he probably fixed lights at some point in his life. He did own his own house, after all. That sentence is perfectly meaningful, and there's nothing absurd about it. I could see how this would be a nice sentence to test actual understanding of semantic absurdity, because some kids might be fooled into thinking that it's semantically absurd, when it's not. But the test actually has it doing the opposite. The kids who can see that it's a meaningful sentence come out with a lower score for vocabulary recognition.

The speech pathologist concludes, "This indicates that Ethan demonstrated difficulty understanding the target words in the sentences that were used incorrectly." Maybe there were other sentences where that's true, but this example shows nothing of the sort. Ethan knows full well what the word "plumber" means, and that's the most difficult word in the sentence. One of the tests the psychologist gave to him during this process tested his vocabulary at the level of the second half of sixth grade (he's in third). His problem wasn't that he doesn't understand the vocabulary in the sentence but that he knows something the test designers didn't, which is that the sentence in question is perfectly meaningful in English and could easily be used without anything silly going on. Unlike the first example, the speech pathologist didn't seem to recognize this fact.

Update: I should say that I accept that you can derive an absurdity from this second example, if you provide a particular context, e.g. if you're told that the plumber is carrying out a job as a hired plumber and doing only that job. If you say enough that someone who understands English fully competently, together with the pragmatic rules of conversation, will understand all that information, then perhaps such a person would think such information tells against thinking the plumber will be fixing lights. But that's precisely my point. You need a pragmatic context to derive the absurdity, and this isn't a test of pragmatics but of semantic absurdities. There's nothing semantically absurd about that sentence.

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