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:

あなたの妹はどこ?YOUR SISTER WHERE?

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.