Thinking About Language and Teaching
Sometimes when I overhear a conversation...the question, and the way it was being addressed, sticks in my head. Recently, I overheard some friends discussing language. Should we think of language as a living thing or is language universal. This is clearly a huge and hugely complicated question, and a topic I have no special expertise in, but it stuck in my head and seems worth considering, even if only partially by a non-expert.
Language changes. This observation alone is neither disputable nor controversial. My good friend Alan has to translate for me the meaning of texts written in my own language long ago because I can no longer understand them (and I am a reasonably educated person). That is some serious change. Thankfully, Alan's decoder ring allows communication to remain possible. The nature of that change, however, is another story.
Is the best language to describe this calling it a ‘living language.’ Arguing about this phrase seems to distract us from what is interesting here. In fact, when we argue about the meaning of that phrase our protestations demonstrate the ongoing struggle, the push and pull, that results in language changing (or not) over time.
At the same time, the fact that language changes over time does not mean that at any given time there are no rules or customs or conventions that must be understood, ideally mastered, for communication to happen. Just like the invention of moving pictures did not erase the existence of still photos, language is both fluid and concrete, contested and deployed as if agreed upon.
Chomsky and others, of course, advance the argument that there is a fundamental and universal structure to all languages over all time. True or not, this contention is not contrary to the fact that the historically specific artifacts of a language, its specific symbols and representations, change—that the precise meaning of words and phrases, conventions about word order and grammar, as well as the existence and extinction of words and conventions at all, are all both (somewhat) stable at any given time even as they have clearly and indisputably changed over time.
This paradox of fluidity and stasis can be difficult to grasp. While thinking about it now, I do not pretend to fully grasp it, but I do think it worth considering. It is as least as valuable as memorizing my times tables! And this brings us to the aspect of the question of interest to me: teaching and learning.
Arguably, grasping the paradoxical nature of language (and life) is not required to learn to write a proper sentence. And there is no doubt that learning the basic building blocks of any discourse—from language to music to math to baseball—is a good place to start, for perhaps the first few thousand of the 10,000 hour rule.
There is real teaching value in focusing our students and children on mastering the basics first. In most areas of our lives we never get beyond the basics. We are lucky if we become expert in a few things and rely on others (who chose to be experts in other areas) to be our pharmacist or auto mechanic or governor.
For most of our students, like ourselves, when we do well in life we have likely mastered what Sheldon Wolin calls the role of a normal scientist. That is, we have found a way to carve out a life for ourselves that makes sense within the dominant paradigm, even as we try to subvert it. Only a few of us will rise to the role of ‘epic scientist’ and create a new (dominant) paradigm. But we should all aspire to at least see the distinction, to wrestle with paradox, and to reject any notion that today’s dominant paradigm is simply all we need to understand or, worse yet, all there is to understand.
The point here is that there is no doubt that learning the basics first is a sound approach to (eventually, perhaps) mastering a subject or to just understanding a subject enough to be able to intelligently interact with others who have mastered it.
At the same time: beware. When we slice the paradoxical nature of life into a simple two-dimensional matrix to help our children or students learn the basics first we need to do so in a way that does not make it impossible for them to see and understand and appreciate the paradox, the miracle, once they go beyond the fundamentals. In this way, the challenge requires as much a mastery of doublethink as it does a rejection of Doublethink.
Take for instance, the time-tested parental warning ‘do not talk to strangers.’ This ‘just the basics’ approach makes sense on one level and for a certain time, but if the sensibility of this introductory and time-limited teaching tool is reified into a universal rule…we risk harming our children by erasing their imagination, obscuring the inescapably contingent and intersubjective aspects of living, by replacing an ability to wrestle with paradox…with a rigid and unimaginative shorthand that pretends we live in a snapshot when we actually (or also) live in a movie.
Yes, Virginia you can talk to this stranger, whom you will someday fall in love with and marry…and this one is okay too since she is your philosophy professor and you want to know her, and this new neighbor and these new friends, well it is okay to talk with strangers there as well, and by the way, Uncle Fred might not be a stranger at all but it is best not to talk with him, or the parish priest, or the raging boyfriend.
Language is a set of agreed upon (mostly) conventions we need to master in order to communicate. Conventions that are (sometimes) contested and change over time. This paradox of insurgency and preservation, living and dead, creates space for both imagination and illiteracy. This tension between our film, photo, and digitized images of self and community is not likely the first thing we teach our students or children, but the way we teach the first things should open a window to appreciating, and being able to negotiate, and navigate within, this tension.
In this tension, push and pull, over the meaning of language and the constrain-y-ness of linguistic structures and conventions lives many things…including the worst imaginable college term paper, where it seems the student took ‘language is living’ to mean that any combination of signs, symbols, letters, coffee stains, dots and dashes would be a suitable reply to a question about Hamlet. In fact, beyond suitable, a brilliant reply and the professor simply fails to see his brilliance.
But in this tension we also find poetry and satire, humor and the Declaration of Independence. We find the Prince of Peace toppling kiosks in the temple. We find MLK reminding us that ‘Power without love is abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.’ We are at our best, as teachers and students, when we find ways to frame our world that remain open to making sense of things.