Rainbow over Galileo Lane, Tucson

Monday, January 2, 2012

The language continuum

I often find as I'm writing  an article or book to explain concepts to my audience that I am clarifying my own thoughts and sometimes making a breakthrough. I liken it to a comedian telling himself  joke he hadn't heard before.  It happens, of course in teaching too.  You understand something yourself in  the course of getting it through to your students.

That's what happened to me recently. I was trying to deal with the common belief among linguists that written language is not itself language but rather an encoding of language. They argue that since written language is not universal and oral language is it cannot be language. The significance of this is that they use it to reject my position that written and oral language are learned in the same way and for the same reasons. They are parallel language processes. Most often these linguists also believe that language innate and not learned. So oral language doesn't have to be learned but written language does.

As I began to write about this I realized that what I believed but had not yet worked through is that both oral and written language are part of  a continuum. Human beings are social and interdependent. Unlike many other animals we take a long time (several years) to become mature adults during which we depend on parents for survival. And the more complex human society gets the more we need to be connected to each other.

Language is the major means of connecting. What is innate is not language but our universal ability to invent language and that depends on our abiity to think symbolically. We can assign meaning to abstractions and manipulate those to represent our need and  experiences to each other.

Furthermore the ability we share to think symbolically is totally recursive. We can use symbols to represent symbols and change the values of the symbols in the same utterances. That's why there are homophones and homographs in all languages. The same sounds and graphic pattern mas have different meanings.

In our view each child invents language but in the context of the social language that surrounds the child. So language is shaped by the interplay between social convention and personal invention and eventually the personal language is consistent with the social language- they join the language community.

For  a young child and a young culture oral language is the most effective means of connection. They need to connect most with family and community. From the beginning though there is some need to store knowledge and experience and so graphic forms are invented- cave painting to tell the story of a great battle or hunt- or symbols and icons to mark significance. Or marks to record quantities or trades.

Eventually oral language is insufficient and fuler forms of written language are needed .They can be preserved and transported so people can connect across time and space.

 Like oral language written language has been invented at many times in many places. That's what is universal-
our ability to invent new forms of language to extend our ways of connecting. That's why deaf people,cutoff from sound based language invent sign based language. And since human communities have neighbors part of the inventive process is taking systems already in use by the neighbors and adapting that to one's own language needs, as the Japanese did with Chinese or the Romans did with the Greek.

This continuum of connection through language requires improved forms for language production as the needs for connection increase. Guttenberg's printing press didn't produce mass literacy  quite the contrary : the need for  the wider spread of literacy produced the need  for and market for printing presses.

So extend this now to cheao pencils.fountain pens, ball point pens, type writers, copy machines,  word processors, etc until we reach the digital age . Now the differences between oral and written language in terms of use and function overlap. We can record sound and images, we can have written conversations on cell phones, we can plan revolutions and get thousands of people in a city plaza on a few minutes notice.

Form follows function in language- Computers developed to crunch numbers and perform fast complex mathematical procedures but they then made word processors possible.

The development of microchips that can store large amounts of data and access it quickly made the telephone a microcomputer that connects us through voice ,written text, and photo and video images in ways that connect us in ways we haven't even thought of yet. And an icon can conjure a game, or book,  or a historical event or turn a phone into a pin ball machine or working slot machine or  bowing alley.

And it all because of our need to get connected.


  1. Ken,
    I couldn't agree more. A statement in a 1976 paper you and Yetta presented was one of the key 'aha's in my professional life. It was along the lines of " Oral and written language are parallel versions of the same thing- language'.
    At the time I was struggling with the learning theories teachers were being asked to apply. I wanted to argue with them that the natural pedagogy which parents and caregivers provided to support learning oral language might provide some insights for the pedagogy for teaching kids to gain control of the written form of language. The psychologists I as arguing with treated this in much the same way the linguists treated your assertions about written language being a language. Keith Stanovich actually wrote that no psychologist or cognitive scientist of any stature could support that learning to talk could be used as a model for teaching reading.
    I think that's one of the reasons we've become such good mates.
    Brian Cambourne

  2. Good on yer Mate and may your antipodes year be fair dinkum. (whatever that means)
    The deaf are proof enough that language can't only be oral. It's a lucky deafkid who is born into a deaf home- That kid learns sign as easily as any hearing kid learns to talk. And of course we both have research kids becoming literate. Another proof is shown by the kids in remedial reading classes who easily text message with their friends.
    Ken Gooodman