Tag Archives: learning

Difficult to Locate, Easy to Distinguish

The contrast between what counts as language and what does not is usually clear enough, once we look for evidence of productivity and duality of structure in communicative behavior.
– David Crytal, How Language Works (11)

IMG_1208How Language Works is a comprehensive book on all aspects of language. How we speak, hear, read, write, communicate and conversate. Hmm, that last one is not a word, but why shouldn’t it be, or why shouldn’t I use it? After all, save official sanction, it has the features required – recognizable phonemes, and plausible meaning. And as Crystal will confirm, and I will second, (exhibit A that I am) spelling is a function of multiple skills which have little to do with reading. Therefore, lacking (at least) one of the said skill sets, hell, conversate looks good to me!

We think of our fellow-speakers as using the ‘same’ sounds, even though acoustically they are not. (67)

Taking the first- the recognizability of phonemes, Crystal explains the unique ability that our ears, throats and brains have to do this thing we call language. Not mere communication- but language. Broken down into as many parts as science has been able, the process is fascinating. In the same way that visual perception both aids and distorts what we see, auditory perceptions has its own modifications for better overall use even at the risk of obfuscation of reality. Just as in visual perception: repetition, constancy, and closure dominate. Our ability to pick out words, particularly familiar ones, such as one’s name, in a crowded room defies the decibel level and chaos of noise.

The fact that our unconscious brains find order while our conscious brains try to instill order is an interesting collision of consciousness. But our conscious system is nothing if not incomplete: while in English we have five written vowel sounds, in speech we have twenty. And don’t even get me or my son Augie started on the sad lack of written punctuation.

Why is it that in English the ‘l’ sound in ‘fall’ and ‘leave’ is considered the same, when everyone can feel that they are produced in very different locations in the mouth and throat? One language will make the conscious distinction, while others will not. Every language makes use and organizes its own sounds, but no language makes use of all the sounds we are physically capable of making.

The word meaning, Crystal tells us,  has upwards of of twenty meanings. Twenty meanings of meaning. Oh Dio. Without these multiplicities we would not have the spectacularly creative and wonderful experience of language, but I have a feeling that the misery too is contained within. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood…

How did this all begin? I’m going to have to side with the Danish linguist Otto Jesperson who listed all the possible theories of language origination, but favored one: the ‘la-la’ theory. Such a lovely name I hardly feel the need to say more. But here it is:

Jesperson himself felt that, if any single factor was going to initiate human language, it would arise from the romantic side of life – sounds associated with love…(351)

Typically, our extended efforts to maintain order create their own complications. So much starts to seem arbitrary and then some French deconstructionist comes running in and blows the whole joint up, making matters worse! In the end, and yes, I’m talking to you grammar police out there, clarity and sincerity is all that counts. If you understand me, and if you believe in me we are experiencing linguistic communion of the highest order. And it’s lovely (regarding lovely: apparently it is a word that women make much more use of then men…).

The unconscious order is wondrously, marvelously complex, yet also, intensely directed towards purpose…of course, the meaning of the purpose is the real mystery.

*Title from page 56: Distinguishing vowels and consonants


Riverine Mind

Knowledge, like other good things is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the sceptic denies the possibility. (52)
– Bertrand Russell, Education and the Good Life

DSCI0013Seen in the light of 1926, when first published, Education and the Good Life, is an interesting, forward book with an excellent title. Read in 2013, it is an interesting, outdated book with an excellent title.

What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health if no one remembers how to use them? (27)

An excellent question which is still worth asking. Russell argues for good and healthy childhoods and educations for all. He goes into near excruciating detail regarding the best methods of raising infants to babies- perhaps that is simply my own exhaustion of the subject, the chapters may very well keep the newly parented person in rapt attention. Most of what he says was new at the time, and has borne the test of time. I do have to disagree with his dismissal of swaddling. I was late to come to the ancient art, but found it not only helpful but logical. After all, an infant having  so recently been held in the intense confinement of the womb does find a familiar comfort in a tight swaddle- and it is strangely satisfying to make a pretty folded package of a little baby (most people sadly never learn how to do it properly). It is also a comfort for a mother’s immediate nostalgia for the time when the life she carried was safely contained. But this is a small matter and I digress.

It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; with it, “progress” would become mechanical and trivial. (30)

Bertrand Russell’s ideas are large and small flowing at a terrific rate, but he is at his best when he is in large philosopher mode. What he really wanted to emphasize in this book is the sense and beauty found in a balance between education as a form of utility and education as an aristocratic “ornament.” His ideas regarding that balance are true and beautifully stated. His Dr. Spock-ish manual of child rearing- a little less so. Once he gets off the formative early years where vitality, courage, sensitiveness and intelligence are practically applied to the average 3 or 4 year old, he gets into early education and cites Maria Montessori and her methodology at length.There is some, but little, to argue with his ideas, the problem is largely one of the information being fairly well accepted these days, so no longer particularly compelling reading.

I regard the cultivation of intelligence, therefore, as one of the major purposes of education. This might seem a commonplace, but in fact it is not. (74)

The sustaining interest of this book is the underlying philosophy. Particularly as we find ourselves in an age of “results” oriented and “skilled work force” propelled educations. More and more an argument has to be waged in defense of the classic liberal arts education; as if all subjects and thinking deemed superfluous should be eliminated. In many people’s minds a high score on a bubble test out-weighs anything that is not easily measured in a standardized exam. I would agree with Russell that mastery of precision matters but without art, imagination and critical thinking, it is to empty purpose. Not just for the individual but for humanity.

Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I must confess that I view with alarm the theory that language is merely a means of communication, and not also a vehicle of beauty. (31)

Alimentary Algebra

My version of a traditional Sicilian Cassata

My middle son and I attend college together. I kind of forced him to take Intermediate Algebra this term as I wanted to make use of the textbook that I had purchased for myself in the fall. It nearly cost as much as the class. Possibly I love the idea of this more than he does, except as I have recently taken the class, I turn out to be an excellent private tutor for him. We have class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We go early to work on homework in the library and then at noon we head to the cafeteria to have lunch together. I am aware that this is a unique and (for me) wonderful way to spend two days a week. I regal him with all of my “don’t do that” moments of math stupidity, but there is always some mental deficiency to rail against on our drive home.

I have to admit to liking Algebra, an arabic word meaning restoration or, my favorite: reunion of broken parts. A method of reduction and balance is one description I read that appeals to my sense of beauty. I derive a childish pleasure out of reducing, eliminating and balancing the equations. My pencil swiftly crossing out and rewriting with abandon.

Although my son and I are a lot alike, I can see that he “gets” the math more than I do. Sometimes when it gets complicated he wants to, and can, understand the why. I’m interested, but am satisfied in being able to simply apply the rules or formula. This is more revealing of my own limitations than anything else. I try to explain to him my feeling for math: It’s like cooking, I expound, anyone can follow a recipe and if they are literate, get a good result. That is my level of math. But I know that there is a higher level- like when you can simulate a recipe in your mouth before you even cook it, when you know that omitting x and adding y will improve the end result. The improvisational aspects that I can grasp in cooking: I am not there mathematically. I am not saying, if I was so inclined, that I could not get there. I’m sure I could, but these things take time. It took me years to learn to cook at the level of letting the ingredients rather than the recipes lead. I’ll probably never be Emilie du Chatelet, but then again, although I make a mean cassata,  I’m not Jacques Torres either. I’m just trying to press up against the edges of my own mediocrity.