Language transfer and signed languages

Language transfer has typically never worked for me.

I’ve studied many languages and have varying degrees of proficiency in each. Each has presented its own challenges and rewards as I’ve studied them (although, to be fair, they’ve generally been studied through the lens of linguistics – i.e., I’ve always had some broader, academic goal in mind when studying them, rather than studying them purely to learn and use the language). One thing they have all had in common, though, is to demonstrate my lack of language transfer ability.

Simply put, language transfer is when an L2 learner applies – usually subconsciously – their existing linguistic knowledge to the language being learned. A simple example would be an English speaker, studying French, inserting an English word when they can’t remember the French one:

Correct French: La fille est belle.
Learner's utterance: La fille est beautiful.

It can get far more complicated, of course, with entire grammatical structures and cognitive frameworks being transferred over… but it just never worked for me. Whenever I studied another language, it was almost in isolation. In the beginning stages, when learning some basic words and phrases by comparing them to English, it was always far more difficult for me than for my classmates. They could easily remember that 私の名前は is just Japanese for My name is. To me, though, they were entirely disconnected. “Watashi no namae wa” and “My name is” were distinct groups of sounds and concepts with little overlap, if any.

Over time, especially as I developed vocab enough to be able to work things out from context, I would start to outpace my classmates (who always outpaced me in the early stages). It was almost like I was learning each language the way an L1 learner would. While the details might be inaccurate sometimes, Chomsky’s theory that language is innate, and that a universal grammar exists, seemed right for my circumstances.

As I studied linguistics, I could always understand the concept as it applied to other people, but it seemed really alien to me – until I started studying Auslan.

I can’t translate well between English and Auslan. In Term 1 2021, my PLC leader and I completed professional development online, where we watched an Auslan user and an English interpreter. My PLC leader was often stumped by the Auslan user, but I had no difficulty understanding and following his instructions – however, I could not relay those instructions to my colleague in English. I just ‘got it’.

The thing is, I can translate well between Japanese and Auslan. Somehow, without me realising it, my mind has connected Japanese with Auslan. To try to work out why this has happened, I recorded my utterances in both languages for almost a week and compared them. As a second step, I tried to translate each utterance into the other language.

A typical example:


The former is quite an informal Japanese phrase. It means “Where is your sister?” but is literally “Your sister where?” (Anata no imouto wa doko?). As odd as it looks in English, this is a perfectly-correct Japanese sentence.

The second sentence (glossed above) is a perfectly-correct Auslan sentence which also means “Where is your sister?” but is literally “Your sister where?”).

Both sentences were uttered automatically during the period I was recording. I was surprised by the Auslan one. In my study, and in practise at work, I use a pidgin Auslan, generally maintaining English structure but without being word-for-word. I should have been more likely to sign WHERE YOUR SISTER?, but this would be less correct.

Somehow, my mind has noticed the similarities between Japanese syntax and Auslan syntax, but I think there’s more to it than that.

I have already subjectively observed that Japanese “feels more right” to me than English. When I speak English I tend to speak a bit like a robot; I am far more expressive in Japanese and can read cadences and intonation in Japanese far better than I can in English.

Additionally, much of my exposure to Japanese comes from tokusatsu, which uses a lot of gesture and expression. I think this has primed my mind to associate Japanese with gesture.

It’s weird, as I can now feel what language transfer is like for those who do it more readily, and I have been able to consciously apply it to learning Auslan. This has primarily helped me to learn to read Auslan texts far more readily and fluently, but is not yet helping with expression.

It’s been noted that Auslan grammatically bears many similarities with spoken languages from East Asia. My mind seems to have made that connection on its own. Neat…

The problem now is that I am inappropriately applying Japanese grammatical rules to Auslan, such as signing AUGUST as EIGHT MONTH. Not really sure how useful language transfer is. Maybe Selinker (1969) was right to see it as a problem (that’s a joke… sigh).

English/Auslan PL: Strong and weak verbs

This keeps coming back to bite me.

On my final teaching placement, it was decided that we would transcribe texts the children had been reading as part of an author study and they would highlight all the weak verbs they could find. I still don’t really know why they were doing this – it was just a directive.

Okay, thought I, that’s easy enough.

Except it wasn’t, because as we went through the texts… there just weren’t that many weak verbs.

I was confident I understood it correctly. A weak verb (or a regular verb) is a verb in which the vowel does not change when you change it to past tense (or to form the past participle). Generally, you just add a suffix, usually -ed or -t. For example, add is a weak verb, as to make the past tense you add -ed to make added. Dream is a weak verb as to make the past tense you add -t to make dreamt.

By contrast, sing would be a strong verb as to make the past tense you change the vowel (/i/) to (/a/) to make sang.

This befuddled me, and the kids, and after a week of scratching our heads I went back to planning to say I really wasn’t sure what we were meant to do with the students’ performance data. They clearly knew what weak and strong verbs were and were able to articulate that there weren’t many in the texts. Was that the point?

It turns out that what the school meant by strong and weak verbs was something else entirely. To them, jump is a weak verb – leap is a much stronger verb.

Ah, thinked me, that makes sense.

It makes sense, but it isn’t what those terms mean. I thought it was just that school, until last year… my first year of teaching. The same thing came up again. Students had to identify ‘weak’ verbs in their own writing and ‘uplevel’ them to ‘strong’ verbs.

The problem, as my very clever kids pointed out, is that that’s just not how writing works. If they wanted to say a character leaped from a building, they probably would have. He didn’t leap – he jumped. The idea was to make their writing – in this case a narrative – more exciting and engaging, but as they said, it was actually requiring them to change the story and, in some cases, the plot and characterisation.

That was largely my influence. I drill into my kids the importance of choosing language carefully and being as unambiguous as possible. They chose the verbs they chose primarily because they were an accurate way of detailing events – only a handful chose verbs due to a lack of available options.

In fact, we dedicated some time to verbs. My kids would have written leap if they wanted their character to leap.

I tried to make it abstract – what are ‘stronger’ ways of saying ‘jump’? But my kids knew all too well that ‘leap’ is a different action to ‘jump’. Oh well.

The thing is, none of that really applies to Auslan.

In Auslan, ‘jump’ and ‘leap’ would be represented identically, by the sign for JUMP. However, you can make it ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ by how you express it. An intense, determined expression on your face would modify the verb to be something more alike in meaning to leap, whereas a neutral or bored expression would indicate a less energetic, more apathetic release of kinetic energy in the legs.

And that’s only one way of modifying a verb in Auslan – you could of course explicitly sign an adverb, for example. PRO2 JUMP KEEN(ly), I guess?

The benefit to teaching this in Auslan is that it encourages children to think about exactly what they want to express, and to express that.

One downside is that it contradicts what they are learning in English – that distinct verbs are modifications of one another, when they simply aren’t (most of the time). That said, if teachers are still using terms like ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ verbs in ways which don’t reflect their technical meaning, then it won’t make much difference.

Another downside is that to add modifiers in Auslan, children need to be able to articulate what they are trying to express. This relies on extensive L1 vocab. I primarily focus on Level 3 and Level 4 within the Victorian Curriculum. At my school, as part of their vocab study, children who still write ‘goed’ rather than ‘went’ are learning words like truculent as new vocab. Complex, uncommon words lead to showing off at the dinner table, not the development of reading and writing skills.

Learning dispositions

This post is split into multiple pages.

Video 01
Video Aftermath
I recently started re-reading the French Asterix albums. Even though I can read French, I have been reading the English translations by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. Yes, I can understand the text as written in French, but the real comprehension is lost in translation – the bard being named Panoramix in French means almost nothing to me, but Cacophonix makes sense.

There’s understanding of the language, and understanding of the context and culture in which the text was produced. I can tell you what the characters are saying, but I can’t tell you why they’re saying it – in English, I can, because I’m situated in the same context.

Sort of.

In the Bell / Hockridge translations, intended for British audiences, a lot of foreign-language references are retained. These likely would have made sense to educated readers at the time the texts were first translated – it was fine to leave Latin jokes and puns in, as students in Britain likely would have had to study Latin and would get the gist. They’d also get the historical and geographical references from school.

Oddly, when I first read the books (when I was 10 or 11 years old) I had no trouble getting the jokes, puns and references either. Yes, I did have to study Latin at school – but that only started when I was 16 years old, so that didn’t help. I have some theories about how I knew that Lutetia was Paris, or Lugdunum was Lyon, or that acta est fabula means ‘the story is over’, but however I knew them, I knew them. If questioned, I could explain what the references meant, their function in the text, etc.

This was before the Internet was as ubiquitous as it is today. I was one of the first among my peers to have the Internet at home, and at that stage I did not yet have it. We didn’t even have access at school! I wasn’t googling these things, and I sure wasn’t looking things up in other books.

(OK, fine, I did read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when I was 10. I also read a lot about Vercingetorix in really, really old books. He doesn’t get a lot of coverage in new texts.)

The thing is, re-reading them now, I have no idea what half the references are. I still get the names – the centurion Surplus Dairprodus’ name is not a complicated joke! – but I forgot what acta est fabula meant. I forgot that Lugdunum was Lyon. Strangely, I still got the joke ‘Why the past tense?’ when a character says ‘visi’ (the prefix in visigoth) instead of the anticipated ‘vici’. How I got that, I don’t know, but it’s a funny joke.

What I have had to do is google things. And that’s the important bit – I am googling them. I’m not ignoring the bits I don’t understand.

This is something incredibly frustrating when teaching Reading. I cannot comprehend how students can just keep reading after not understanding part of a text. Fine, you don’t need to fully understand every last detail, but if you are reading a text about a skier named Tara and you don’t know what skiing is… you need to stop and find out. Being able to decode the words is not enough.

I regularly drill into my students the importance of stopping and finding out. Sometimes, a very valid point is thrown back at me – ‘I don’t care.’ (If you don’t care, it isn’t the right text for you.) It’s a long, drawn-out process, but my students always learn to stop and ask – and they’ve all sat through lessons where I’ve confused myself, abandoned the lesson and found things out for myself.

I apply the same to Science. I have… much greater than usual science knowledge and science understanding. But it is just… facts and processes. I don’t really know why things work the way they do, or why I or anyone else should care. I just know how things work the way they do.

This came to a head during my final teaching placement and even moreso in my first year of teaching. I took a group of three students out to make and launch rockets as a reward. We used bicarb soda and vinegar as our fuel. I was easily able to explain the chemical reaction occurring between the two substances, to reassure the students it was safe to touch. (One of the students pointed out, after my explanation, that I hadn’t accounted for some Hs and Os… I forgot to mention the water byproduct.) 

The knowledge I had was utterly useless for what we were doing. Our learning was to explore and engage – the fact I already knew what would happen and how provided no benefit, and it meant I missed out on the fun.

Later in my first year, one of our leading teachers planned a science activity for us – making and playing with oobleck. In theory, I know how oobleck should work (it creates a suspension, with the starch particles suspended evenly in the water, making the fluid behave in ways young learners may not expect) but I ignored that knowledge to just explore with the kids. Instead of ensuring the kids knew how it worked, I focused on the experience of playing with it, asking questions and testing it out (the best being ‘What would happen if we threw it at our P.E. teacher?’ – the answer was not what I expected, but it was fun finding out!).

The finding out is the key part, just like with Reading. I would never expect my students to just know or just accept what I tell them about a text; they need to engage with it themselves and find out for themselves when they are stuck. The same applies to Science…

… and I’m in a perfect position to model it. At Levels 3-6, students are tasked with exploring why things happen, or predicting the effects of things. I can apply a logical, theoretical approach to this which more often than not will tell me the right answer, but that’s a different skill and different approach to what is expected for and from my learners. They specifically need to explore, not just tell the right answer.

I realised that I already do this quite a bit. Recently, we had a curriculum day in which chicken was served for lunch. I don’t eat chicken for moral reasons. It then had me wondering why I eat eggs, but won’t eat chicken – the same moral reasons should apply. This led me to investigate (explore) the differences between a chicken and its eggs. I ended up with very little new knowledge, but the act of exploring led me to new opinions and attitudes.

The goal is to help students see what it is like to explore things they don’t understand, not just to google the right answer (or ask the teacher). For me, this is most easily developed through exploring science, as that area engages me, but in theory the same approach could work in any curriculum area.

A secondary goal is to elaborate on this to support students’ literacy development through exploration and experiential learning, but that is for another time.

Glossing in Auslan

This post is split into multiple pages.

Auslan is typically not written down; it is expressed ‘through the air’ (VCASFU138). However, there are times where transcription is appropriate. The transcription of Auslan signs is called glossing.

Defining glossing
In linguistics generally, a gloss is an explanatory note between the lines or in the margins of a text, often to explain or provide an equivalent to a foreign or difficult word in the text. I employ glossing frequently when subtitling texts which feature words or phrases with no direct English equivalent. There are other examples which are frequently encountered, such as Japanese furigana (small writing above kanji which is likely to be difficult for the target audience, depicting the word in kana).

There are conventions for glossing in Auslan. Glossing forms a significant part of my planning, however I have found that I occasionally deviate from Auslan glossing conventions and default to more generic glossing conventions used for other languages. I also frequently make an error with ‘POSS-’ glosses, using them to note possibilities rather than possessive noun concepts.

The goal is to be more consistent when using glossing in my planning, so that anyone else teaching from my planning would not need to decipher idiosyncrasies in my writing.