ARKTESOL and split

I went to ARKTESOL on Oct. 10–that’s a TESOL conference in Arkansas. Our whole ESL crew went. Stephen Krashen was our keynote speaker. He said some really important things about the need for more books in our school system, but that’s not what I’m going to talk about right now. Instead, I am going to focus on literally one sentence of his ending speech.

One of Krashen’s points was that if you are a good reader, you are good with language. In other words, reading is a way we build up language skills. As evidence, he asked us all to “take off the first sound” of the word split. After several different unison responses from the audience, he said, “the reason you can do this is that is you see the word split in your mind’s eye and you remove the s.” This is almost exactly what I did. But this is not what my co-worker did. She removed spl and said “it.” Then she said, about Krashen’s words, “he’s wrong.”

Now, this teacher has not known me long enough to realize I like to play devil’s advocate for the hell of it. Nor does she know that I like to play devil’s advocate whenever I feel someone is being close minded. That’s right, I thought she was being close minded. See, it wasn’t the idea of removing spl from split that bothered me. It was the idea of being unable to imagine anyone doing it any other way. Especially coming from a teacher, and an ESL teacher at that. Because as teachers we have to recognize that our students have different points of view, and as ESL teachers we have to recognize our students come from different cultures. This is like a small practice session.

Anyway, it ended up in an argument about whether the “first sound” of split was s or spl. Mrs. Naldi told me spl cannot be segmented because it’s a digraph, which she wrote on my ipad notes as “diagraph.” The spelling error was actually the last straw. I erased all the notes and said “I know what you mean…” (implication: don’t treat me like an idiot) “…but I disagree,” thus ending the conversation. So I’ve been reflecting on this experience, trying to see what I can learn from it. For one thing, I see that poor spelling can make you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

But I said I disagree, which is not entirely true. In fact, I agree that removing the entire consonant cluster is a perfectly legitimate action. In the minds of native English speakers, the cluster is usually processed as a single unit. Evidence of this is pig latin: you wouldn’t say, plitsay, you’d say itsplay. Also, in a spoonerism, it is likely the entire cluster would be transferred, not only the s (i.e. “the log split” becoming “the splog lit”). (Though this isn’t always the case. “Split the paper” could conceivably become “plit the spaper.”)

But quite frankly, the idea of not being able to segment the cluster is BS in my opinion. Why? Because I was taught to segment the sounds in school. That’s right. When I was in elementary, split was s-p-l-i-t, not spl-i-t. In fact, segmenting the cluster together was an idea that I had not heard of until about three days before the conference. It was clear that Mrs. Naldi knew this, and she almost told me that I need to go back and take a class on it, though she respects me enough that she stopped herself. (Although in retrospect, I don’t see why this should be taken as an insult, we all need to continuously learn… maybe the idea of a college class, as opposed to a “professional development” class implies that one is uneducated…) On the other hand, maybe I should have gotten her to say it, I could have responded, “Okay, I’ll do that. If you go take a phonological analysis class.”

Because here is the linguists’ side of the argument, or my response to the statement that spl is a digraph and therefore cannot be segmented. Technically, spl is a consonant cluster. It is formed of three individual sounds or phonemes: /s/, /p/, and /l/. Therefore, the cluster itself can be broken down into its componentĀ  parts. You can tell because you can swap out the /l/for an /r/ or the /p/ for a /t/ and get a different cluster, which would form a different (nonsense) word. Now, like I said, the cluster is usually processed as a single unit, but that’s due to the phonological rules of English. I am tempted to give her the name Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind or the Lithuanian word kvietimas, meaning “invitation,” and ask her what the first sound is. Because if she says /k/, it shows that two consonants forming a cluster does not negate the fact that they are made of several sounds combined with one another. Granted, segmenting the sounds might not be the best way to teach the cluster, which is why her opinion is very valid, but it’s not the only way to examine the word.

And this is where I go back to where I said I almost removed the s and came up with plit. But I didn’t. I removed the sp (which is also a perfectly acceptable English consonant cluster) and was left with lit (which is also a perfectly acceptable English word.) When I asked my mom, she removed s and said plit. And I heard other people at the conference do this. That means not only that removing the s (or even the sp) is possible, it’s how some people process the language, and as a language teacher, this could be useful information.

Thus, in my opinion, Krashen was not wrong. But neither was Mrs. Naldi. Language is messy, and very rarely is it black and white.

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