Why are these sentences so jarring?
These four words are well known to all English speakers, and we understand immediately what they mean. But placed in the sentences above, they crunch against our eardrums and we cannot accept them. Because in these sentences I have used these four words as if they were nouns, as if they were things. Intuitively we know that these words do not refer to things. No one can point to on in the same way that one points at a dog. So clearly these words, and many others like them, are of a fundamentally different nature.
What is it that sets these words apart?
Let me provide a few acceptable English sentences to clarify the matter:
‘The book is on the table. The table is beside the cupboard. Above the cupboard there is a painting and under the cupboard there is a mouse.’
What additional elements must be introduced for these words to make sense?
It is clear that actual things, e.g. the book, must be introduced to make a real sentence, and that the word ‘on’ doesn’t really convey any concrete image, unless it is used to express a relationship between real things. Yet we are able to hold in our minds the concept of ‘on-ness’ and entertain this concept without reference to the physical objects that exemplify ‘on-ness’ by one of them being on the top of the other. So at some point in our language learning and cognitive development, we realised that the characteristic of ‘on-ness’ can be separated from the messy concrete world and, in our minds, can become a clean abstract concept. We cleanse this concept of all details and particulars, of all books and cupboards, and are left with a neat abstraction.
How does this abstraction develop?
The nature of language is such that it allows us to describe an infinite number of scenarios with a restricted number of words. We can speak about ‘books on tables’, ‘hats on heads’, ‘ships on the ocean’, etc. We focus on some aspect of the relationship between these objects, and in doing so ignore all other relationships between them. We do not refer to the relative weight of the book and table, the shape of the hat and head or the size of the ship compared to the ocean. Instead we describe their relationship to each other in space.
This process of abstraction is assisted by the recurrence of the same words in diverse situations. Children hear the word ‘on’ in situations that, at first, seem to bear no relation to each other. But by paying attention, they can figure out what ‘on-ness’ is. Once the concept has been isolated, they can use it themselves to generate completely original sentences that allow them to highlight this aspect of the relationship between things in their conversations with others.
Why is this relevant to language education?
The point is that nobody ever explains to the child what ‘on’ means, nor do they provide him with a translation of ‘on’ into his first language, as the target language is his first language. He uses his eyes, ears and mind to work it out for himself. He has certain powers of mind that allow him to do that; the capacity to focus on some things while ignoring others, to notice consistency and difference, and to associate these awarenesses with words. These powers are available in every classroom and in every student. They are just waiting to be unleashed.
How can we make use of these powers of the mind in our own classrooms?
As I’ve already mentioned, the concept of ‘on-ness’ develops as an abstraction from physical objects, through the perception of some common relationship between prima facie unrelated objects. So in the classroom we must provide a clear image of ‘on-ness’ by presenting students with several different representations of ‘on-ness’ that allow them to discover this concept for themselves. We need to provide them with a situation or scene and then attach language to the concept that this scene presents.
Cuisenaire rods can quickly and efficiently attain this goal.
Here we can see that the concept of ‘on’ is expressed in many different ways, and it is up to the student to ignore the particular colour and length of the rods and to focus on the common relationship between the pairs. The eye can not see ‘on’ in the same way that it sees the colours and shapes. But the mind and the eye work together to see more than is immediately apparent. This allows us to look beyond the things themselves, and to perceive the relationships between them.
I ask you to imagine how these rods might be rearranged to express the concepts of ‘behind’, ‘under’, ‘near’ and ‘along’. What solutions can you find to the problem of presenting these concepts? Will they involve consistencies, contrasts and/or movements? What games and activities could be used to consolidate and extend the students understanding of these concepts?
Perhaps the selection of the word ‘on’ for this article was not the best, perhaps some other word would have better served my purpose. Since all languages have some form of relating objects in this way, it might seem a little trite to explain at such length. But what about when languages do not share concepts, when certain words have no translation? How should we present the English object pronouns to a Chinese-speaker, whose own language makes no distinction between I and me, he and him, she and her, we and us and they and them. Clearly translation cannot help us, as there is no equivalent for these words. As another example, how should we present the words ‘a’ and ‘the’ to students of English? Again, translation doesn’t help us, as most languages do not distinguish between the definite and indefinite articles in the same way that English does.
This articles does not attempt to explain exhaustively how to present all English concepts by use of Cuisenaire rods, merely to explain that the rods can be used to generate clear mental images of abstract concepts, which can then be associated with words. The development of appropriate linguistic situations created using the rods is left to individual teachers working with specific languages and students.