Saturday 8 March 2014

Suffixes and sign language

I recently had two of my students decide against continuing with WAYK. After talking it over with Ben Barrett, who is always a great help, I have concluded that my main problems were, firstly, trying to pitch a beginner's class to halfway intermediates (an issue I will come back to later), and secondly signing all the suffixes.

I had always seen the signing aspect of WAYK as useful. It serves as a both a memory aid for new vocabulary and for making the whole experience more "tactile" and therefore more memorable. It also serves as a way of marking the various elements of a sentence to make sure that phrases enter the memory as "sums of parts" and not simply unparsed wholes. Basically this is what is meant when they talk about a bridge language.

But in hindsight it seems the idea of mapping all elements of the spoken language to sign language is not only impossible but undesirable, as it creates unnecessary complexity. One of my students in particular complained about the "hand signals" from the beginning saying she "wasn't very dexterous", and I could see that most of her brain's bandwidth was indeed being spent on getting her hands around the signs.

I didn't help things by signing all the suffixes religiously. I think it was particularly difficult where I was signing suffixes that were part of a syllable. To give you an example, just watch this little snippet from our last session.

I'm saying Bu senin şişen mi? which translates as "Is this your bottle?" The sign language is going like this:

Bu senin şişe -n mi?

I think this much is clear: Never, ever sign half a syllable.

With this possessive suffix "-n", it does actually form an independent syllable with words that end in a consonant, like kalem which becomes kalemin and telefon which becomes telefonun. So the question is: Was my mistake not starting out with words that ended in consonants, and would therefore give me a whole-syllable suffix to sign, or is signing suffixes at all a mistake?

After talking to Ben, I'm currently leaning towards the latter. He has taught Japanese, which is also a highly agglutinative language, without signing the suffixes and with no problems, relying on the Obvious Set-up to do the magic for him. However he also suggested radically revising the target conversation entirely to use as few suffixes as possible starting out, completely eliminating "mine, yours" for the first five or six sessions and instead opting for sentences without suffixes, based more around "this, that".

Ultimately we come back to the fundamental principle of a Limited Obvious Set-up. We use sign language for all the reasons listed above and also because it makes the Set-up more Obvious. Where sign language will complicate things (as in complicated suffixes), first check to see if your Set-up is Obvious enough to do without it. If things are still too complicated, it's time to Limit some more, and go back to the drawing board if you have to.

All sign language is eventually phased out anyway. If I can get away without sign language for suffixes, I will. Where I do feel the need to use sign language for suffixes, I'm going to be careful to make sure I engineer my conversation so those suffixes are in whole-syllable forms, but abandon them just as soon as my students are used to them.

It's not all bad news, my original student is still keeping at it and I will hopefully have a second starting afresh. Meanwhile, things have been going well on the English front, with our first formal beginners session this evening.

To paraphrase Will Smith, it is no longer our job to get them to like the method. It is our job not to mess it up!

Edit: See Suffixes and sign language revisited


  1. Yes, I was surprised by your decision to sign suffixes. It makes things too complex as you have discovered. I tend to limit signs to distinct words, and I will even skip signs for small 'function' words as well. Instead, when students leave them out I will just lead them back through it and make it obvious.

    1. Well, my fear had been this: With "benim şişem", for instance, the pronoun is optional but the suffix is mandatory. In other words "şişem" is perfectly acceptable as "my bottle", but "benim şişe" is wrong. So when we get around to saying simply "Bu şişen mi?" for "Is this your bottle", surely my students will be confused if I only sign "THIS-BOTTLE-QUESTION" without a "YOUR", right?

      Wrong, because this is where I as the WAYK practitioner need to work on the rest of my Set-up to make it Obvious. Either my students should have the "-n" suffix down pat by this point, or I need to come up with other ways of making it "obvious" than signing the suffix. I realise this now :)