Monday, February 20, 2006

The joys of inflected languages

We're starting to teach my three-year-old daughter to read sentences, and the way we do this is using flashcards that we can rearrange. My husband even had the brilliant idea of making cards with the names of all the members of our family, to make the sentences more meaningful to her.

One thing I quickly realized last night is that the inflected nature of English verbs immediately limits what we can do with the cards on hand. For example, all verbs are given in their standard dictionary form, e.g. "see", "run". But this isn't the correct form to use in a sentence with a singular third-person subject. Instead, we had to make all our subjects plural: "Kiera and Kyla run." "Kiera and Mommy see the moon." Or, we could use past tense verbs, which do have the same form for all number/person combinations (I'd never noticed that before): "Daddy saw the dog." "Kiera and Daddy saw Mommy."

It could be a lot worse. In fact, it is a lot worse, for just about every other European language. In English, only the third-person singular differs from the dictionary form, and I can create it simply by adding a removable sticker with the letter "s" onto the end of the word as it's printed on the card: "Kiera sees the moon." Were we to make sentences in just about any other language, we'd have to have multiple endings (veo/ves/ve/vemos/ven in Spanish, for example). That's a lot of stickers.

Chinese, of course, has no such problem since conjugation by person and number doesn't exist and tenses are indicated by context and auxiliary words rather than inflection. But seeing as how I'm not even literate in any Chinese dialect, it'll be a while before we can take advantage of this fact in teaching my daughter.

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