Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Grammar Fallacy: Yeah, but does she know what it means?

This isn't what I'm being paid to do right now, but hey, I will work until 5:30 and happily call it worth it.

You know how sometimes you'll see or hear something that gets under your skin, and you feel as though you absolutely cannot think of anything else until you respond? Something that makes you fidgety, like you need to stand up and move around, cool off a bit? Something that makes your heart pound and your tongue wedge between your teeth?

Well, that's happening to me. And it isn't even something big. In fact, most of you will probably be disappointed when you find out what's bugging me, because it isn't a big political issue, or a body image issue, or a feminist thing, or even something you already know outrages me, like sex trafficking.

It has to do with four-year-old Brielle who has appeared on The Ellen Show. I saw this video on Facebook this morning, and loved it. Brielle is confident and polite and well-spoken, even though she has trouble forming her words sometimes. Oh, and she's an absolute master of grammar ("grammar": the vocabulary or principle elements of any subject).

So impressive, not to mention adorable.

Since she's only four years old and has had time to learn all this, I immediately wondered if she was homeschooled. I started Googling to find the answer, and found other videos of her. She also knows the entire periodic table of elements.

Automatically, because I'm just naturally a glutton for punishment, I scrolled down to see the comments on the article about her knowing the periodic table. Lots of people were nice ("Good girl!! Hope she falls in love with learning...!"), some people--of course--criticized the parents ("Child abuse."), but one comment made me stop cold. Made my heart pound and my tongue wedge between my teeth. I had to stand up and walk around.

"OK, idiot savant... But does she know what the table means?"

*pauses for a moment, collecting self*

Maybe that seems like a legitimate point to you, and if it does, I'm not mad. I'm actually really glad that you're reading this, and I hope you'll read on.

The simple answer? No, Brielle probably does not fully grasp what the periodic table "means." She has probably memorized a lot of words and terms and definitions that don't mean a lot to her right now. She probably doesn't know exactly what protons or electrons ARE. Little kid brains are just wired for storing information. Little kids are THE BEST at memorizing because their brains are trying to collect info to help them understand the world. Memorization is obviously not impossible once you get older, but it is more difficult, especially if you didn't exercise your memorization skills as you grew up.

So right now, Brielle pretty much only knows the words. She knows facts and sentences.

But fast forward to high school, when she starts doing "real" chemistry. Her classmates have never really thought about the periodic table of elements. They don't know the order of elements, and consequently don't know the atomic numbers of elements. They don't know what any of the elements do, except maybe that hydrogen has something to do with water. Brielle's classmates must memorize the table of elements, at the same time that they're trying to learn and practice chemistry. They're trying to get good grades while learning the grammar (the vocabulary) and the dialectic (applying concepts and asking good questions) at the same time.

But Brielle? Brielle thinks back to the "empty" words and terms and definitions she memorized when she was four. The words didn't mean a lot to her then, but now, with her more mature understanding, she can recall that information and quickly attach more meaning to it. Brielle won't have to memorize the periodic table (or the bones in the human body, or where all the countries in the world are). Instead, Brielle already has that information and can immediately move on to things that are more complex than memorization.

The words and terms and facts she has memorized provide "pegs" for her to hang future knowledge on. The words and terms and facts naturally grow with her whenever she learns new information. If she hears something about hydrogen that she's never heard before, the information will not go in one ear and out the other, because there's already a box in her mind that contains "Hydrogen" facts. The box has been created and is partly filled, and she has only to add this new information to her collection.

If you hear a new fact about breakfast cereal, don't you think you'll store that information better than a random fact about, like, the Winter War?

When I was ten, I memorized a list of 160 historical events. I didn't really know what some of them meant ("The unification of upper and lower Egypt by Pharaoh Menes"?), but now, when I hear something about the ancient unity of Egypt, I'm like "Oh, okay, yeah. Pharaoh Menes did that," and I know that it came around the time of the Tower of Babel and the Old Kingdom in Egypt, because I know what historical events came before and after it.

So to answer your question, "Tonye," no, Brielle probably doesn't know exactly what the periodic table means. But that does not detract from the value of what she's doing. One day, all the "rote memorization" that came easy as a child will pay off, giving her the boost she needs to move on to true understanding.

Never undervalue the power of kids "just memorizing" without true understanding. They are just collecting the light bulbs that will go off later.



  1. OK.... so you egg me on....

    By an odd fact of coincidences, I was in first grade when I was five. I learned the multiplication tables up to 12.. BUT I knew what they meant.

    Years later, in 4th grade, I learned the complete list of the Iberian Visigoth Kings. But I knew who they were and what they had done.

    We did not memorize words, we LEARNED things.

    And, indeed, if you look up at the meaning of "idiot savant" you will see that it applies to this kid. Sure, she can memorize words, but does she have a clue what it means?

    Maybe she will have an eidetic memory but I don't expect her to get a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

    Now let me tell you a bit more about me...Eons later, I became a physicist.. In my profession we do not value rote memorization, we value understanding. In fact, all or our tests were open book. You could bring ANY book you wanted to any test... If you knew where the find the proof, then you were welcome to copy it, because you understood that understanding the problem is the key to solving it.

    And solving problems is not a cook book process, with a well known, finite set of solutions that can be memorized via deduction (or brute force search), but an intuition based mechanism that will likely create new solutions and expand the realm of human understanding.

    But then, I'm a lowly physicist that deals with models.

    And, does this kid know why 12x11=131?


    1. Hey Tony! We may not disagree as much as it sounds like (though I am taken aback that you’d suggest this bright little girl is “a person who is considered to be mentally handicapped but displays brilliance in a specific area, especially one involving memory”).

      My argument is simply that it is not wrong, useless, or cutesy--in fact, it's extremely helpful--to focus on memorizing when you're four years old. It actually prepares you well to succeed as you get older.

      Remember, I also talked about the importance of revisiting memorized concepts to develop a real understanding. I absolutely think that by fourth grade, kids should be able to engage intelligently with material. But memorizing lists of facts at an early age gives them a leg up for that phase.

      Great classical thinking does not end at rote memorization, but it certainly starts with it!

      I can't help but think that if you'd memorized lists of terms relating to physics at age four, you might have had an easier, maybe even more quickly rewarding, experience in college.