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20 November 2005

Use more verbs

“Life is a verb.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Dick_and_janeI learned to read by painstakingly pronouncing the rambunctious adventures of two knee-socked, slightly irritating, good-as-gold, simple-minded, very white, and really downright boring children named Dick and Jane.

The text for one of those primers begins “See Dick. See Dick run. See Dick play. See Dick run and play.” Dick seems mighty lonely—or at the very least unimaginative and the tiniest bit anal, what with the pristine play outfit complete with clean shoes and his shirt always tucked in.

As psychologist Richard Nisbett reminds us, Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot, were quite the active individualists. They each run and play and kick balls independent of one another and sometimes tease each other and appear to gloat in their superior set of belongings—see Jane buy a new Mercedes. See Dick cringe and plot her downfall.

But in China, the reading primers are different. The first page shows a little boy on the shoulders of a bigger boy. “Big brother takes care of little brother. Big brother loves little brother. Little brother loves big brother.”  It’s all about the verb, the linking part, the relationship, the connective action.

As Nisbett explains, in China it’s “not individual action but relationships between people that seem important to convey in a child’s first encounter with the printed word.”  While we tend to say “I am who I am,” our Asian friends may more likely make reference to social roles—“I am Lori’s friend.” We say “See Dick run;” they say “Dick loves Jane” (the Truth about Dick and Jane, at long last).

We track the development of our 2.5 year-old daughter, Tess, by the things that she knows. When we play, I ask her the names of objects: moon, star, fire truck, apple, couch, shoe, Cheerio-crushed-into-carpet, and then we move seamlessly into the category of Choking Hazards—button, quarter, marbles, Kibbles, peppermint candy.

Unconsciously noun-obsessed, I teach her about things—and that she is separate from them, apart—that she is her own self and they are out there, things to be named. Sometimes we branch off happily into proper nouns: Johnny Cash, Santa Claus (who, according to her, says “Ho, Ho, Ho Chih Minh” and no, I’m not kidding and yes, I know therapy will be in her future), Spongebob Squarepants, and Dora the Explorer (my lord, does she have to incessantly repeat herself, that Dora, incessantly repeat herself, that Dora, that map, that map, that irritating backpack, backpack, backpack wedged into every synapse?)

Primer_look_dickStudies have shown that in the U.S., children learn nouns much more rapidly than they learn verbs. (Nouns are easier to learn—they belong to categories, they’re unambiguous). Not so in East Asian countries where children learn verbs at a faster rate. Japanese mothers are more likely to ask about feelings, using feeling-related words when their children act up: “The toy is crying because you threw it.” “The wall says ouch,” Nisbett reports. By focusing on feelings, children are taught to anticipate reactions of other people… it’s all about the relationship, not the thing.

You can see this play out, like most things, in sentence structure: verbs in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean tend to come either at the start or finish of sentences while in English, verbs are usually buried in the middle. 

From Nisbett’s Geography of Thought:

“Developmental psychologists Anne Fernald and Hiromi Morikawa went into the homes of Japanese and Americans having infants either six, twelve, or nineteen months old. They asked the mothers to clear away the toys from a play area and then they introduced several that they had brought with them—a stuffed dog and pig and a car and a truck. They asked the mothers to play with the toys with their babies as they normally would…American mothers used twice as many object labels as Japanese mothers (“piggie,” “doggie”) and Japanese mothers engaged in twice as many social routines of teaching politeness norms (empathy and greetings, for example). An American mother’s patter might go like this: ‘That’s a car. See the car? You like it? It’s got nice wheels.’ A Japanese mother might say: ‘Here! It’s a vroom vroom. I give it to you. Now give this to me. Yes! Thank you.’ American children are learning that the world is mostly a place with objects, Japanese children that the world is mostly about relationships.”

How early our patterns begin, the way in which we see the world—no, I think it’s even deeper than that—it’s not just seeing the world differently, it is actually a matter of seeing a different world altogether.

Which one is my world? The one made up primarily of nouns or of verbs? Of Self with Thing or Self with Other?

Chinese_handwrittenI was a serious student of Chinese for a few years a hundred years ago. I look now at the notebooks jammed full of thousands of Chinese characters, written in a sure hand, the order of those strokes impeccable, their uniformity reminiscent of rows of tightly trained soldiers or upstanding members of a marching band. Every character in the sentence the same distance apart, the sense created out of the context, that soup in which they float, not out of the words themselves—meaning made from placement, not linguistic marker.

Words in Chinese have multiple meanings—horse and mother separated only by tone and placement—so it’s only possible to know them through context, their place in the world. In English, we demand a subject, an order; we’re subject-prominent—it is a Self who acts: “He dropped it.” For Easterners, action is undertaken in concert with others—often without an agent: “It fell from him” or just “fell.” Hello in Chinese is often “good, not good?” “Eat, not eat?”

In Japan there are sixteen ways to say no—without saying no.

Thirty years ago, my friend Jack was a faculty advisor for an undergraduate thesis, “Sixteen Waysto Avoid Saying 'No' in Japanese" by Keiko Ueda. Jack explained it to me recently in an email when I asked about being stood up for dinner in Tokyo:

“The gist of it is that Japanese hesitate (less so these days) to say a clear 'no' for concerns of maintaining good relationships (face issues) and that the more  experienced or sophisticated the person, the broader the repertoire (college students then had a few ways; their businessmen fathers had up to sixteen ways, including 'yes.') It's not that Japanese will say 'yes' and then do ‘no’ but that one sends signals of 'no' without saying so—at least sixteen ways.  So there are set expressions like the equivalent of ‘hmmm, that might be difficult’ which pretty much means 'no.' If the person didn't show up for dinner he (probably), she (less likely), they (?) may have thought that their reluctance, inability for diplomatic reasons, etc., was already signaled. The Japanese are perfectly capable of saying 'no.' I would be interested in learning more about a culture where people couldn't.  It's a relational thing, not a 'content' thing.”

A relational thing, not a content thing.

Primer_roller_skatesWesterners grow up in a world of objects while Easterners grow up in a world of relationships. We own objects—like little Mary Ann and Junior with their roller skates or Jane with that fancy Mercedes—but maybe it’s not the words, the nouns, the things that matter. What if Mary Ann had helped Junior learn to roller skate, rather than just concentrate on her own skates? Would we spend so much time fighting over ownership—of skates, of oil, of countries—in this vast world of ours if we focused on verbs, not things?

Primer_mary_ann_playing_storeMary Ann is playing store. Junior is playing store. But we’re not told that Mary Ann and Junior are playing store together, now are we? Would the word “with” have been too great a leap for the young reader?

Words, words, words. What do they really mean?

The reigning World Scrabble Champion is a 21-year-old Thai university student who doesn’t even speak English. Panupol Sujjayakorn knows an enormous number of English words, but he doesn’t know what they mean—he just memorized 100,000 patterns of letters—the entire Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, without regard to meaning or context.

Scrabble_russianMost of us think of Scrabble as a point game laid out on a board, writes reporter Martha Ann Overland in her story about Mr. Panupol. He doesn’t. “He thinks along an axis, where point values occupy a place in space.” The story intrigues me: The rest of us play by knowing the language—the meaning behind the words. But, then again, we’re not Scrabble champions, are we? Mr. Panupol doesn’t know the meaning of any word he uses on the Scrabble board; rather, for him it’s a spatial game, like Tess learning the name for “button” or "choke" or “ambulance,” without knowing what that means.

A spatial game. A relationship game. 

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Dickandjane_conqueringSee Dick run! See Jane conquer! (I couldn’t resist this image of Dick and Jane amidst the Romans).

In an interview, poet Welton Smith talks about verbs: “Music tells a lot about verbs. In music every note is a verb. In the beat poems, every word is a verb, because every verb will be structured to test your capacity as a reader for action or response.” Or as poet Steve Kowit wrote more simply: “A noun’s a thing. A verb’s the thing it does.”

Be the thing that does.

Focus on the verbs, the connectors, the actions between people.  Test your capacity for action or response or relationship or Scrabble championships.




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» Our tendency to categorise and the effect on sensemaking from Anecdote
Patti over at 37 Days provides a brilliant and humorous description of Richard Nisbetts work on how westerners and Asians perceive the world differently. Her renditions of Dick and Jane stories are priceless. According to Nisbettour early ... [Read More]


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I can't say much more than, WOW! Thanks go to Leah at Working Solo for the head's up. I will be referencing this post in the near future, since you write about something so near and dear to my heart.

Your "focus on the verbs" advice is so astounding - well, to me. I have always tried to do so, without knowing why. I learned to read via Dick and Jane, and I now realize that I'm a noun person (by default) striving to be a verb person.

Yvonne - many thanks for stopping by and for your nice words - I see from visiting your blog why the "Dick and Jane" connection is important! Good luck with that move toward the verbs...!

Patti, yet again you have cast forth some words to ripple the internet lake waters of thought. These are action words this time and I concur with Yvonne that this will be referenced a few times before the ripples settle, if they settle.

Thank you!

I've stumbled upon your blog while researching Pippi Longstocking for a term paper assignment. Easily distracted, I read through some of your posts and I'm completely captivated and inspired. I like to call myself a writer and a reader; I'm currently waiting on a response from the creative writing department at the University of Arkansas - with crossed fingers! Yet, I blame my busy college life for not writing nearly as much as I'd like to and why the books on my shelves have just barely been scanned. You're 37days challenge is inspiring. Thank you for your thoughts and ideas - and refilling the ink in my pen! And from redhead to another, thank you for sharing your love of Pippi. - Sam

This is FASCINATING. I suffered through Dick and Jane books in 1st grade. I can't say they taught me to read because my mother had done that earlier, pre-kindergarten. So I found them particularly insufferable to sit through as my classmates tried to phonetically sound out those pathetic sentences. (That makes me sound like a horrible brat...and in those days? I probably was.) "Would we spend so much time fighting over ownership—of skates, of oil, of countries—in this vast world of ours if we focused on verbs, not things?" Probably not. This is going to radically change how I baby-talk with any infants I meet from now on. :)

Welton Smith correction. Ref. Patti on 20
November 2005 at 00:08. Welton Smith actually says ..."In the best poems, every
word is a verb...." Welton Smith, in that
Interview does not say, "In the beat poems..."

dingane - thanks so much for the typo alert!

The error in the Welton Smith Interview actually appears in Modern American Poetry
site on the net. The original Interview in
Journal of Black Poetry #15, gives us what
Welton Smith in fact said.

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