The Complexity of Simple Things: Cross-disciplinary Collaboration for Teaching Colors in Menominee

Macaulay, Monica
MacDonald, Rita
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This paper demonstrates the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration for a deceptively simple task: teaching color terms in Menominee. Two of us--a theoretical linguist with expertise in Menominee and an applied linguist with expertise in educational linguistics--joined forces to strengthen our capacity to support Menominee language teacher trainees who are, themselves, learning Menominee through immersion supported by explicit instruction. Color terminology is surprisingly complex in Menominee. There are three systems: Two are closed and partially overlap, and the third is theoretically open, providing a way to express colors not available in the first two. There are five prenouns, bound particles which compound with nouns; seven verbs, which can be used predicatively and attributively; and a construction allowing speakers to describe an object’s color by saying it looks like some other object (e.g. ‘looks like grape’ is ‘purple’). We started by informally assessing the trainees’ current understanding. Many assumed that all color terms are used the same way, and function parallel to English adjectives (a category not found in Menominee). They combined terms from the three systems, without distinguishing syntactic differences. We set aside the important issue of language change under conditions of loss of first-language fluent speakers; in this case, the directors of the language program want the original system to be preserved and taught. We chose an assets-based instructional approach, building on the teachers’ demonstrated strength in applying a previously learned (English) pattern, rather than planning instruction around a classic structural approach moving from syntactically simple to more complex patterns. Based on teachers’ understanding of patterns in English, we are developing lessons (to be piloted Fall 2016) which start with the prenouns (which parallel English adjective-noun ordering) and move through attributive verbs in prenominal position and “looks like” constructions, and only later introduce post-nominal options and the most complex “looks like” forms (see table). It was only through collaboration that we were able to devise this approach. In addition to collaborating with communities, linguists can address the problematic Lone Wolf approach through interdisciplinary collaboration with other scholars.
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