Boston Weather, Hospitality and a Talk on Reading

Who ever said that Boston people aren’t helpful or polite to strangers?  Yesterday it was sleeting and coming at such a slant that I was prepared to be warm with layering my clothes and about to use a bag to shield myself in the mile and half walk.  The bellman at the hotel suggested I use an umbrella, so once that was checked out to me, I was good to go.  I wish I had taken a photo of this HUGE, black umbrella, it certainly protected me.  I felt especially warmed by this man’s help in complex, downtown Boston. Just doing his job at the Radisson, I guess.  Later the weather cleared up and after all day at TESOL, I walked over to Boston Commons to do some shopping at Macy’s.  I was turned around several times but again Boston people were more than helpful to get me to my destination.  Photos will follow.

Yesterday I wanted to take in Tufts University own linguist, Maryanne Wolf.  When you have a conference in Boston, you don’t have to fly in the main speakers, they are right in the near vicinity with all the universities Boston is known for.  I was told a figure yesterday that there are 200,000 students in Boston, 25,000 of whom are international students.  Not surprising that this is a mecca for the brightest and the best from around the world.

Ms. Wolf seemed a very smart woman, she talked so fast I had a difficult time keeping up with her in my notetaking.  I’ll just give the most salient points that she made, that which I understood from her linguist’s jargon.  When I arrived she had on her powerpoint something about Proust.  However, this quote from Pascal I did get down: “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there is rearrangment.”  She said that kids nowadays are immersed in the digital media 7 hours a day.  When she was summing up her talk she got back to how this may not be such a good thing.

Ms. Wolf said there is no such thing as an ideal reading brain. We were not created or meant to read but to speak and listen.  She used an audience participant in front of the 1,000s who came to hear her talk and asked her to visualize the word she spoke.  The Chinese woman was a bit confused by this question and with the cameras were right on her she hesitated to answer, so someone from the audience shouted out what they thought was the correct answer.  The point is that with polysemy, there are more than one meanings to certain words. The word or object Ms. Wolf asked for was “pea” or it could have been the letter “P.”  Her point is that there are many times that we have a familiarity with words but they may have  a different context such as the word “bat.”  Could be the flying rodent, the club to hit a ball or the verb to hit the ball.  She mentioned that one little 5 year old boy added, “to bat one’s eyes.”  So you have multiple meanings to one word.  If you know the context, you can read quicker.  There are different parts of our brains that are functioning differently depending on whether we see the letter P or the object pea, as a little green vegetable.

She related about another instance where a Chinese man knew how to read and speak in Chinese fluently.  Also, he was fluent in English but when he got a tumor on his brain, he was no longer able to speak in Chinese because it affected the function of his linguistic abilities in that area of the brain and so he could only speak in English which was in another area of his brain.  Ms. Wolf said that the brain can rearrange itself in multiple ways in order to read.

She also used another example of asking a 5 year old what’s the first sound of “cat.”  Talking from a linguist’s point of view she really was after the phoneme but a 5 year old will typically say “meow” as the answer to her question when she is really looking for the “k” sound.  It takes the child 2,000 days to gain the same insights in the development of reading.  She said that it is terrible that in Boston there are parents hiring tutors for their 3 year olds so they can be “outliers” and they are being pushed too fast, too hard.

She said that Tom Selleck in the movie “Three Men and a Baby” defends why he is reading to the baby, “because the baby loves the sound of my voice.”  That’s it, we should read to the children so they can put it together with the letters they see on the page and the objects that they are visualizing with the story.  They learn that in English we read from left to right but in Chinese it would be up and down and right to left.  The concepts are built in the children who are read to and it matters to them if you skip a page.

When considering “Language Expression” a child in the home of a professional parent will have heard 50 million words whereas a child who grows up in poverty on welfare will hear only 15 million words by the time they reach school.  A working class home will have heard about 32 million words spoken.  Therefore, there is Word Poverty.

Ms. Wolf asked the audience to pronounce three words:  “Periventricular; Nodular; Heterotopia.”   Bottomline, the more you know about a word and its separate parts, the faster you will read it.  She said that the timeline of an expert reader means that you will have a Proustian moment with the words you read.  You will need time to think about what you are reading first with each pause between words.  “We need to read fast enough so we can have time to think our own thoughts.

Wolf talked about students who were labeled dyslexic were really kids that had different brains and 30-35% of today’s entrepreneurs had childhood dyslexia.  We haven’t learned how to teach reading to the child right.  Now with the digital age the young students who are learning words are in this mode of “suspended distraction.”  They have no time to think through the meaning of words, everything is given to them where they don’t have to think on their own.  They are surfers of knowledge now and it is not efficient.

Socrates feared that print would give the illusion of truth and create no ambition in the young beyond the superfluity of knowledge.  Ms. Wolf quoted someone else as saying: “How horrible it would be that the very intellect that created the Internet would be destroyed by it.”  She ended on a more positive note that it is good for the brain to know and understand two languages.  Goethe said that in order to understand your own language, you must learn and understand another.  She advocated bi-lingualism.

I spent the rest of my day in the Technology Pavilion learning more about TOEFL with TOEIC, Criterion, Lexile and many other good sites.  What fun to end it with Elizabeth at the TOEFL Spring break party they sponsored.  We got zany sunglasses and ate pizza and chips.  After that I went shopping and walked around Boston Commons.  More photos to come.

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