Language and Thinking

Some Topics

Reading and Writing

“The phaomnnehil pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

The Cambridge university example above is a remarkable demonstration of the word recognition capability of the brain. To an experienced reader, it does not matter what the order of the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letters are in the right place.

Language, learning and intelligence are bound together. Spoken language is a natural feature of the human brain, learned quickly and effortlessly without schooling. Written language is not spontaneous, is difficult to learn and requires disciplined practice over many years. Reading becomes all the more impressive when you attempt to study or imitate the neural mechanisms that underlie reading. Writing and reading are recent developments. For example, a 5250-year-old Egyptian tableau of scenes and symbols carved in limestone is thought to represent an early stage of writing. In addition to stylized pictures that have symbolic value, scholars look for phonetic elements that represent sounds of speech, evidence of true writing. Visual symbols have meaning independent of speech, but writing is intended to be read, to be converted into speech.

Written language is superimposed on auditory language and is, at least in the early stages of learning, derivative of speech. This means that visual symbols represent sounds and written words are learned by associating the symbols with the sound of words, already known. Children learn written language best by decoding the sound information contained in words, the phonetic approach. A language that uses simple and consistent phonetic characters is easier to learn than English, for example, that is inconsistent in spelling and uses words often that are difficult to decode phonetically. As phonetically based reading is practiced, word recognition gradually replaces phonetic decoding. Familiar words become gestalts or visual patterns that are recognized, even when the spelling is incorrect.

Languages differ in their content and construction and some appear to be easier to learn and use than others. Children who have difficulty learning to read and write are described as “dyslexic.”

English is a difficult language because written words are not necessarily phonetic. There are thousands of irregular spellings that resist decoding by ‘sounding out the word”. In addition, there are many worlds that sound the same but are spelt differently. American spelling has simplified some words by removing characters that have no phonetic significance – color replaces colour, for example. A complete overall of English would be a major task but so far, there is no mandate for anyone to begin the project. The extension of simplified, more phonetic American spellings would be welcome. In addition, irregular verbs should be replaced with verbs that follow rules for verb modification. I readed would be as acceptable as I walked.

There are about 40 phenomes in English, represented by thousands of letter combinations. Easier languages to learn such as Italian have fewer sounds, represented by fewer and more consistent letter combinations. Some written languages were invented with rational and consistent rules, others evolved with irregular and inconsistent grammars. Korean writing, for example, was invented by a King and rationally represents sounds with a consistent, phonetically based alphabet. Korean names tend to have three short syllables such as Min Jung Kim. The many short words in English such as articles and prepositions are omitted.

In Thai language, a similar simplification of grammar is prevalent with no distinctions made for singular or plural, verb cases, or gender. In Thai there is no requirement to learn rules of verb tenses or memorize complicated declensions of irregular verbs. There are intricate rules, however, for polite speech that require an understanding of relationships, context and hierarchy.

Great Divide Between Speaking and Reading

The great divide between spoken and written language is poorly appreciated in most pedagogical systems. Literacy is considered the main goal of education and complete literacy is a desirable goal of a technologically advanced, civilized state. Despite improvements in educational systems and universal education, in Canada and the U.S.A., a significant percentage of the adult population in both countries has limited ability to read and write. In New York State in 1999 two thirds of the grade 8 students failed a standard English achievement test. Low scores were found in children of all socioeconomic classes. The achievement scores in different regions are relative to the standards set for literacy and estimates vary from region to region. Literacy advocates are concerned by the large numbers of students and graduates with limited reading and writing skills and demand educational reform. Studies that show low achievement in reading and writing ability can be explained as a normal, natural distribution of cognitive ability.

While many affluent countries can claim almost complete literacy in their populations, reading sophisticated texts with real understanding is still limited to a minority of educated people. The language in this book, for example, is suitable for university educated, English-speaking humans who are unusually thoughtful, patient and well informed. The minimum IQ required reading this book with real understanding is probably about 120. The percentage of people in Canada and the USA who can even begin to read this book is probably less than 10%. Even very smart people who have learned English well may have difficulty reading this book with complete understanding since they may not recognize many of the less common words; they may not respond to all the nuances of language that are familiar to me.

Education and learning about literature and philosophy makes abstractions commonplace and this advanced language learning allows this book to exist. Books are elements in a virtual language-reality. The content of a book involves abstractions from the really real that are more or less disconnected from the real world. The problem with abstractions is that derived meanings tend to proliferate and become elements of a virtual reality, disconnected from any substantial origin or any meaningful destination such as an object or action in the real world. The sentences in this book are disconnected from spoken language since almost no speaker would use such formal and structured language, except perhaps in a very good university-level lecture.

Spoken language tends to be colloquial, cryptic, idiosyncratic, burdened with inappropriate metaphors and fuzzy concepts. The sentences in this book require more time and attention to perfect than spoken sentences receive. These written sentences evolve slowly over time and are handcrafted to achieve more precise descriptions and more accurate syntax.

Education enthusiasts assume that all people can achieve high levels of literacy and are disappointed when standard tests scores are low. This is a nurture assumption and the mistake is to assume that low achievement in reading and writing skills is a pedagogical problem that can be solved by more and different education. While I would not want to argue against any improvements in educational method and context, there is an underlying assumption that schools are powerful instruments of individual and social change. At best, this is a theory that runs counter to the evidence that achievement remains more or less the same, despite big investments in education and the use of different teaching techniques.

Some people do better than others no matter what pedagogical technique is used. The highest achievers are relatively independent of schooling and often do better when they leave formal schooling behind. The American educational experiment reveals that schools (in their present form) have limited ability to effect individual and social change and that advanced skills in reading and writing are achieved only by a small portion of the population. One underlying principle is simple. Humans follow the path of least resistance and prefer easier tasks that they succeed at doing and avoid more difficult tasks. Learning to read and write is the most difficult of cognitive tasks. If you can get what you want and need by other means, then written language becomes an unnecessary luxury. Since radio and television dominate the media world and require no literacy, television programming easily replaces printed texts as the primary source of information and entertainment.

Half the population has an IQ equal to or less than 100. Members of the population with IQs lower than 100 are probably doing well to learn basic reading and writing skills. The lower IQ humans struggle to learn basic written languages, do not read spontaneously and do not use writing as a preferred method of communication. You could predict that at least 50% of the population would have limited ability to read and write based on IQ scores. The numbers of semi literate citizens remains high if remedial schooling is not available and if the cultural environment does not encourage literacy through adult life.

Less literate humans are often skilled storytellers and thrive in a verbal environment using local, colloquial versions of their native language. They thrive on folklore and traditional explanations. They are not aware of the nuances of philosophy, the detailed descriptions of science and the principles underlying technological advances. You could argue that illiterate humans live a more authentic life, especially in regions where nature is better preserved; they live more as humans have lived for thousands of years.

Spoken language has reasoning built in and carries the oral history and ethos of a people. Educators apparently do not understand the primacy of spoken language and focus on the three R's, failing to serve the needs of at least half the student body. Schools should be practicing speaking and listening as a priority rather than reading and writing. When a human does not read or write readily, most of his or her information comes in the spoken form; schools cannot compete with family, friends, radio, and TV, which all use spoken language rather than written language and the content of education that requires reading and writing, but often, the texts offered are irrelevant. The black student in an urban school that insists that he sit still, keep quiet and read will feel inferior, cheated, disenfranchised and alienated in school; however, as soon as he enters his home turf on the street, he transforms into an empowered, self-confident fluent speaker of the jive, a rapper, a dealer - one cool dude. The school teaches him only that school is an unfriendly place, with obsolete books and hostile people who really do not know what is really going on out there in the real world.

Television is the most powerful media because it requires no reading ability. Every human with a normal brain can see and understand the pictures and most can understand TV speech. Programming is deliberately simple. The level of language commonly used is sometimes described as “basic grade 9.” You could argue that television programs are tuned to the median IQ of 100. Since there is little to no literacy requirement to enjoy TV programming, the video culture is separate from the world of universities, science and literate discourse that depends on study, books and journals. There are exceptions, of course.

In contrast, a high IQ person with advanced education will read daily, enjoy newspapers, magazines and books. He or she will be self-motivated to search for more and better information. However, writing is never easy, even for the most intelligent and skilled. Only determined, smart people will have the aptitude and discipline to become good writers. No one has data on the prevalence of good to excellent writers, but a reasonable guess is that less than 10% of well-educated citizens are functional writers and excellent writers are a small fraction of 1% of the general population.

Dr. Gislason wrote: "In this brief reflection, I describe some basic truths about languages that are aspects of human nature most likely to endure. I feature storytelling and selftalk as the two most important features of the human use of language. I consider how languages fit in the larger scheme of intelligence and human interactions. Interesting challenges emerge when language is used to describe itself. Spoken language is an innate ability of humans that emerges in all human groups. Spoken language is the key to interaction among humans. There are several thousand languages in human groups that enhance group cohesion and at the same time separate groups that cannot communicate. I trace the evolution of sound communication from animals who have lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years to computer programming that uses condensed forms of cryptic languages that are received and expressed by electronic circuits."

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