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Students who argue over answers:

In a message dated 3/12/2007 8:20:48 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time, KennedyL@ writes:

Dear Bill:
Here a our high school, we are using your ASL online lessons and disk to facilitate and Independent Study ASL course.  I am the teacher who is proctoring the coursework.  I have a question regarding the Quiz for lesson 9.   
The answer for question #189 is given as two questions or a two fold question.  (Do you have a garage? And if so, how many cars does it hold?)
I have a student who has responded with:  How many cars does your garage hold?   
I have corrected the students response as wrong based on general linguistic principles.  However, she continues to argue the point that her response is the same as the key answer, according to ASL linguistic rules.  Could you shed some light on this?  Is the student correct?  Based on English semantics it would not be correct.  However, are the semantics different with ASL?
Laura Pena
St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists
St. Paul, Mn

The question at hand is:
GARAGE HAVE? CL:3-(vehicle, "park")++ HOW-MANY CAN?  (Do you have a garage? --if so-- How many cars will it fit?)
The student's interpretation was:  How many cars does your garage hold?
As an instructor correcting the student's test, the overriding issue here is, "Did the student understand what was being signed?"  Which is to say, did the student understand the signs:
CL:3 - ("parked car")
Did the student also understand the overall intent of the question as wanting to know how many cars can fit in the person's garage?
Now, under the "strictest" interpretation of that sentence it is a fact that I sought two pieces of information:  Does the listener have a garage?  How many cars does that garage hold?
In linguistics we move from phonology to morphology to syntax to semantics and then to pragmatics.  Pragmatics, in this case, referring to the situational context within which sentence is expressed. Pragmatics also involves taking a look at the knowledge and beliefs of the speaker and the relation between speaker and listener.
Let's consider two different circumstances:
Situation 1:  Testing environment:  The sentence is expressed as an isolated language sample in a non-conversational setting to a group of students.

Situation 2:  Real life conversation between two individuals.

In the first situation (during a test) there is no opportunity for participation of the listener in the construction of meaning during the "GARAGE HAVE" portion of the question. 

In the second situation (during a conversation) the listener would actively participate in the construction of meaning by either nodding or shaking their head.  The listener could technically shake their head "no" and the speaker would need to abandon the rest of the question because it would not make sense.

Thus it is can be argued that while the semantics in each sentence of each situation are the same, the pragmatics are different.

So, if it can be "argued," then what is the argument?
The student could argue that the "GARAGE HAVE" portion of the sentence is used to establish whether the listener owns or possesses a garage. 
The student could then argue that the "your garage" portion of her answer corresponds to the "HAVE GARAGE" portion of the question since "your" and "HAVE" are both used to indicate possession of the garage.
It would be tempting to assert that YOUR and HAVE are two different signs, (which they are), but again, we are talking about pragmatics (overall meaning) not morphology (the meanings of individual units).
In everyday ASL usage, it is common (but not required) to establish a topic through a process of "topicalization," and then to make a comment or ask a question about that topic. See:

So, bottom line?  It could go either way.  As an instructor you have to ask yourself, is this a good student?  Did she get most of the other sentences correct?  Did she answer correctly at least one other sentence which used the sign "HAVE?"  Do you feel that she doesn't know the sign for "HAVE?"  Did she omit the first part of the answer because she did not understand the signs or did she instead interpret the question the way she did because she was choosing a casual (yet basically correct) interpretation?  Also, was the concept covered carefully during a classroom lesson?   Expectations for the precision of answers be to questions about a particular concept should be directly correlated to the amount of time spent in class emphasizing that concept.

And finally, something for you to consider when students come up to "argue" with you:  "Will it really matter?"
In terms of grading, will the loss or addition of this "one" point or set of points affect the student's grade at the end of the semester?  You can head off a lot of arguments by simply reassuring a student that at the end of the semester if she is "one point" away from getting her "A" that she is welcome to remind you of this "borderline" question and you will give it to her.
For what it is worth, I personally would have given it to the student.  I showed it to my wife (who also teaches ASL) and she indicated that she would give it to the student as well.


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