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A game provides students with the chance to learn language without any prior language aside from the ability to produce phonemes.
The lesson plans includes several "time outs" for mini-discussions about the parallels between the way the students are acquiring language and the ways that children acquire language.
Here are several files to help you play this game with your class: (1) language game shapes to cut out (pdf), (2) language game phoneme groups (pdf), (3) language game slides (ppt), and (4) language game notes as handout for students (pdf).
I designed this lesson plan introduce students in a developmental psychology class to language development. This is a first lesson on the topic that requires no background knowledge. It's a game where students learn to acquire language without and prior language aside from the ability to produce phonemes. This game is meant to be a fun and engaging introduction. It gives students an active role in their learning and it gives the instructor many opportunities in future class sessions to refer back to their experience.
The basic idea really comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Notebooks. He was a philosopher who, among other things, tried to figure out if the way we understand our language can tell us something about the way we ought to address philosophical questions. I usually begin class by telling my students that this is where I got the idea from. Every time I have taught this at least one student comes up to me after class to talk about the philosophy.
The basic idea is create an imaginary world where you students are in a community without language. Of course, an entire imaginary world would take so long to devise a language for, it's not at all feasible during a single class. So we simplify the world. One way which works well is to cut out many different shapes in different colors and sizes. To demonstrate the way language works, you should stand at the front of the room and make a picture with your shapes on the board. As you do this a volunteer or teaching assistant is at the opposite wall of the classroom with an identical collection of shapes. He doesn't turn around but he tries to make the same picture as you. The only way he can do this is by listening to you say what you're doing. You speak in English (or the language of your classroom) and you point out to the students how complicated it is: you need to talk about shapes and colors and relative positions and so on. We couldn't even do it perfectly and we're using English.
The students are given the exact same goal except they may not use any English! All they can use are phonemes (explain what they are and give a preview to infants development of phonemes)! To make the task a more constarined, the class will break into small groups and each will be given a unique list of phonemes. They are reminded that they're not allowed to use any english so they can't simply say, "Ugoo" means "red."
Students are given two packets of shapes, and list of their groups phonemes. A list of all english phonemes and sample groups are at the end of this document. They can do whatever they want so long as they don't speak a natural language and they only use their phonemes. I call "time in" to start these rules and "time out" for our brief pauses for mini lectures.
Your students will probably look at you completely dumbfounded! Some groups will probably figure out how to start but if not you will have to give them their first word. Simple walk up to a group, look at their phoneme list, combine two phonemes, point to a single shape they have and say the phoneme combination you made. That gets a group started because they invariably take your word as the name of the shape. Of course, you never gave them that interpretation so why did they think that? This is actually your first "time-out" for a mini-leecture/discussion of the "whole-object constraint."
Place any object that is mainly a single color on your table (exp: a pencil or the overhead projector) and call a time out. With everyone's attention point to the object and say something arbitrary (exp: goobar). Ask, "by a show of hands, how many of you thought "goobar" means [pencil - or your object] (most hands go up) Ask, "by a show of hanfs, how many of you though "goobar" means [yellow - or metal - or some prominent quality of your object]. (few hands go us). Ask the rhetorical question, "Why do you think you naturally believed the word means the object and not, for example, the object's qualities." Developmental psychologists have noticed children make the same assumptions you did when they're first learning words. It's called a "whole object constraint" because without any special information we think a new word means the whole object and not its part or qualities. When you started playing the game, did you use the whole object constraint? (short discussion) Call time in.
As children get close to two years of age, the start to learn words incredibly fast: about 10 to 20 new words a week! Many of these words are names for things like nouns. When you were playing the game, did you have a language explosion? Did you have a time when you suddenly acquired learned many more words? (short discussion)
When children learn words, it can be really difficult figuring out just what a word means. For example, a child might use the word "bear" only to talk about her favorite teddy bear. But lots of teddy-bears could be called "bears" so what she did is an "underextension." Another example might be a child who uses the word "car" to describe his family's car, all the other cars, trucks, bicylces, and even tricylcles!" What he did is anm "overestension." Do you find yourself making over-extensions or underextensions as you figured out your language?"
Write the following sentence on the board before calling time out: "The spy sees the police officer with the gun." Ask students, "By a show of hands, how may of you think the police officer has the gun?" (most hands go up) Now write directly underneath your sentence, the following sentence: "The spy sees the police officer with the binoculars." Asks students, "By a show of hands, how many of you think the spy has the binoculars." (most hands go up). Then look puzzled and ask, "By a show of hands, how many of you think the police officer has the binoculars." (few hands go up) Say something like, "Okay, I'm confused. This sentence (point to top sentence) has exactly the same grammar and almost all of the same words as this sentence (point to bottom setence). How come most of you felt the prepositional phrase "with the gun" means the police officer has the gun BUT you also felt the prepositional phrase "with the binoculars" means the spy has the binoculars?" (draw out from the class how they're using background knowledge. This will happen very naturally because you'll get responses like "because cops carry guns" and "the spy is seeing and binoculars are used to see far away." Give the following explanation and ask the following question: "So you used your background knowledge about police officers, spies, guns, and binoculars to understand the sentences. How we understand language by using the context and our background knowledge is called "pragmatics." Have you used any pragmatics so far while you were playing the game?" (short discussion) Call time in.
(As you finish up the game) How was playing the game? (they'll probably tell you it was challenging). Say something like, "Isn't it amazing that a two year old has a vocabulary of several hundred words and even a simple grammar. At the same time she can't even tie her own shoes!!! How do children learn language so rapidly? Many developmental psychologists who study language take a nativist perspective. Remember learning the basic developmental theories the first week of this class including nativism, the idea that children start life with basic concepts. One nativist idea of Noam Chomsky's is children have a module, a special part of the mind, that's entirely devoted to learning and using language.
Allot some time at the end of class for each group to show their langauge to the entire class. For each group, half of the students are speakers at one board and the other half are listeners at the other half. I've seen students have a wide range of responses. Those who weren't trying very much during the game just kind of fumble through this activity or find 'short-cuts' that ignore the spirit of the game. Other students who were really trying have gotten really excited when they see how much they were able to communicate. My personal feeling is to let this activity be self-reinforcing where the whole class indicates informally how they feel about each group's performance. For example, I always express how impressed I am with their pictures and when they take those 'short-cuts' I just say, "lame!!!"
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