“First, tap your forehead with your index finger. Then, with hands at shoulder width and forming a circle using the thumb and index finger of each, move your hands from neck height downward, stopping abruptly. If you are not fluent in American Sign Language, you would struggle to guess that this motion means “decide”—but a study published this week suggests that non-signers can guess at least one crucial aspect of the word.” The Economist
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key
Excerpt: A Word in Hand- The Economist-Ronnie Wilbur
“Decide” is what is known as a telic verb—that is, it represents an action with a definite end. By contrast, atelic verbs such as “negotiate” or “think” denote actions of indefinite duration. The distinction is an important one for philosophers and linguists…One question is whether the ability to distinguish them is hard-wired into the human brain. Academics such as Noam Chomsky, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believe that humans are born with a linguistic framework onto which a mother tongue is built.
Exploring these ideas is tricky, not least because newborns hold the answer. But sign languages, just as complex and expressive as their spoken counterparts, may give hints by bringing the conceptual into the visual domain.
In 2003 Ronnie Wilbur, of Purdue University, in Indiana, noticed that the signs for telic verbs in American Sign Language tended to employ sharp decelerations or changes in hand shape at some invisible boundary, while signs for atelic words often involved repetitive motions and an absence of such a boundary. Dr Wilbur believes that sign languages make grammatical that which is available from the physics and geometry of the world.
Work by Brent Strickland, of the Jean Nicod Institute, in France, and his colleagues, just publishedhttp://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/04/24/1423080112 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, now suggests that it is. Dr Strickland has gone some way to showing that signs arise from a kind of universal visual grammar that signers are working to.
All of this, Dr Strickland says, challenges the long-standing notion in linguistics that the relation between a symbol and its meaning is arbitrary. If the various symbols for “decide”, encoded in a number of different sign languages of different descent, all share unconscious visual cues, then perhaps the relation is not entirely arbitrary after all.”
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Directions: Have students use the KWL chart to list the information they already know about American Sign Language. Later in the Post- Reading segment of the lesson, students can fill in what they’ve learned about the topic.
II. While Reading Tasks
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- Atelic verbs denote actions of indefinite duration.
- The distinction is an important one for philosophers and linguists.
- Humans inherently have a broader core knowledge.
- Sign languages are as complex as their spoken counterparts.
- Signs arise from a kind of universal visual grammar.
- Dr Strickland’s team recruited volunteers.
- Participants guessed correctly more than 90% of the time.
- This pattern was not confined to Italian Sign Language.
- That may be an indication of core knowledge.
- All of this challenges the long-standing notion in linguistics.
Reading Comprehension: Word -Recognition
Directions: Students choose the correct word or phrase to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.
One question/quest is weather/whether the ability/able to distinguish/distinct them is hard-wired into the human bran/brain. Academics such as Noam Chomsky, a linguist/linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believe that humans are barn/born with a linguistic framework onto which a mother tongue is build/built. Elizabeth Spelke, a psychologist/psychology up the road at Harvard, has gone farther/further, arguing that humans inherently have a broader “core knowledge” made up of various cognitive and computational capabilities.
Grammar Focus: Structure and Usage
Directions: The following groups of sentences are from the article. One of the sentences in each group contains a grammatical error. Students are to identify the sentence (1, 2, or 3 ) from each group that contains the grammatical error.
- “Decide” is what is known as an telic verb.
- It represents an action with a definite end.
- The distinction is an important one.
- The volunteers reported having none prior experience of sign languages.
- Respondents accurately spotted the correct answer.
- Perhaps the relation is not entirely arbitrary after all.
- Speakers of Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN) would be useful.
- Humans may share such communication basics.
- But the present findings are an good sign.
III. Post Reading Tasks
Directions: Have students fill in the last column of the KWL chart (what they Learned).
Graphic Organizers: Finding the main idea
Directions: Have students use this graphic organizer from Enchanted Learning to assist them with discussing or writing about the main points from the article.
Directions: Place students in groups and have them answer the following questions. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the following discussion topics.
1. The following statements were taken from the article. Rephrase each statement in your own words, then discuss the meaning with the members of your group.
“Dr Strickland’s team recruited volunteers…These volunteers reported having no prior experience of sign languages. In the first experiment, they were shown videos of a series of signs from Italian Sign Language. For each, they were asked to guess the sign’s meaning and given a pair of options: one telic, and one atelic describing a different kind of action altogether (one pair might, for example, be “forget” and “negotiate”).”
“All of this, Dr Strickland says, challenges the long-standing notion in linguistics that the relation between a symbol and its meaning is arbitrary…That may be an indication of core knowledge that would not surprise the Chomskyists. What might provide more compelling evidence are experiments in a similar vein carried out among speakers of Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN). This developed spontaneously, in the 1970s, among deaf Nicaraguan schoolchildren: an untainted expression of communication made visual.”
“The notion that humans may share such communication basics is also fuel to Dr Wilbur’s idea that sign language long predated the spoken kind. Establishing either proposition will take far more work. But the present findings are a good sign.”
Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about American Sign Language from the reading, two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.