The Inner Scaffold for Language and Literacy
The Acculturation of the Mind
There is a fertile topsoil we are born with in our brains, imprinted by the interplay of sights and sounds and movement of those who interact with us. This immersive communicative theater, felt first in the womb, roots itself within the immediacy of each moment, even while gesturing at distant realms yet unknown. Climbing towards this mystery with our tongues and thoughts and technology bends the world toward our needs, and allows us to project our inner selves into the past and future. We ride rivers and build highways across our brains. This is our cultural inheritance, our storied legacy of language and literacy.
In the last post, we explored whether language acquisition is truly innate. We reviewed two books that each suggest language may not be as biologically innate as typically assumed.
Why do we assume that language is hard-wired into our brains? Perhaps because we witness how swiftly children acquire languages used by others around them, as well as the simple fact that language is the human endowment that most distinguishes us from other animals.
And: how else would children learn something so incredibly complex as the grammar of a language without explicit instruction?
Some have posited that we have something uniquely fundamental (a “universal grammar”) genetically baked into our brains that predisposes us to learn language.
A recent literature review, for example, Prerequisites of language acquisition in the newborn brain, highlights that newborns already possess core auditory and speech processing abilities that enable rapid language acquisition starting from birth.
And yet, as Rethinking Innateness suggested based on computational modeling with neural networks, and which continues to be confirmed by more recent modeling (as in this study, When Children’s Production Deviates From Observed Input: Modeling the Variable Production of the English Past Tense), very simple repeated learning interactions can swiftly lead to complex linguistic abilities.
Furthermore, as the exponential rise of Large Language Models (LLMs) has demonstrated, there is something about the statistical nature of language itself that can lead to creative, interesting, and even sophisticated responses from glorified next-word prediction.
As The Language Game outlined in a chapter, the languages we use to communicate have evolved, and continue to evolve, far faster than our brains can, so while clearly there is something about our brain architecture that lends itself to language, we don’t necessarily have specific areas of our brain that form from language genes, or even areas of the brain that are at first specialized only for language.
What we do have are brains that can reliably and rapidly wire themselves for daily language use across our progeny. And, on the flip side, a well honed cultural technology (language) that has become well-adapted to the curvature of our brains and the demands of our societies, even as it iteratively and recursively creates new forms.
When does learning need to become explicit?
Thinking of language in this way – as an acculturated bootstrapping onto our animal brain architecture that chisels into increasingly specialized areas that become automated for language – offers us an intriguing parallel into how we also talk about acquiring the ability to read. The argument about why learning to read can be initially hard – and thus requires explicit teaching – has rested on the idea that reading is “biologically secondary” and “unnatural” as an arbitrary technology, and that it therefore requires bootstrapping onto pre-existing aural, visual, and motor networks that were not originally made for it.
Yet if language itself is not necessarily innate either, then that means both language and literacy are in some sense biologically secondary – even as they have become culturally necessary.
Clearly, written language is harder–and takes more time and guided practice–to acquire than the spoken or signed form of a language. But is that because written language is unnatural?
Or is it because written language is more formalized, abstract, and distal from the immediate context of human interaction? Is it because learning to read and write demands more from us than the simple and essential interactions that lead to our everyday use of oral language?
Think about other things that are easier or harder to learn. There is much in life we learn simply by observing and then trying. Some of these things are not necessarily natural. Is it natural to pick up a plastic sippy cup or an octopus toy? Or is it that these technologies have become designed by our culture over time to conform exactly to the developmental demands of a child?
Think of the Pythagorean Theorem. Did you rediscover this theorem by playing with objects? Why or why not? What is it about such a concept that makes it harder to learn, and how and why do we learn it at all?
Much of what we learn is through repeated exposure and interaction with other humans or objects. We learn such things implicitly. This is how we learn our first language(s). But when learning is more formalized, more abstract, and more removed from the immediate context of interaction with our physical world, it requires more explicit teaching and guidance. Learning to tie our shoes, for example, begins to edge into the realm of requiring more explicit teaching, because tying a knot that can be easily undone is a more abstract concept and more difficult to achieve, with finer motor skills, than tying a knot that is harder to undo. It requires far more effortful practice than learning to sip milk out of a sippy cup.
Learning to decode written language is far more initially abstract than learning to decode spoken or signed language, and it requires more effort – and greater precision – to attain – and thus, more explicit teaching. Yet creating a sharp dichotomy between oral (natural, hardwired, biologically primary, innate) and written language (unnatural, cultural, biologically secondary) may also lead us astray.
It may lead us astray because we may think that if language is innate it does not need to be taught, while if reading and writing are unnatural, then they don’t also depend upon social interaction and implicit learning.
To Be Clear
Before I go further, I want to be clear about something. I’m not arguing for a “whole language” view of learning to read (that oral language and written language are largely synonymous). Nor am I arguing against the need to explicitly teach decoding (because learning to read is natural). Instead, what I am trying to do is both complicate and make more precise some of the narratives we have about learning language and learning to read. My hope is that we can eventually land in a space of greater clarity. Stay with me.
Everyday Language and Decontextualized Language
Human language – whether manifested in spoken, signed, or written form – exists along a continuum of immediacy and abstraction.
Everyday language, the language we use to communicate our needs to other humans and navigate the physical world, is quite rapidly acquired. We can use context and nonverbal cues and gestures quite effectively to complement and accelerate our everyday use of language.
But there is another form of language – often called decontextualized language in early childhood research and academic language for older children – that takes far longer to learn and develop. Some initial forms of it are conveyed and developed through oral traditions of storytelling, enlivened with characters, events from another time, and settings in other places. This narrative type of language is more decontextualized because it takes the speaker and listener beyond that of the immediate context and moment. Such language is also developed with young children through conversational interactions and responsive turn-taking with adults. Back and forth conversations allow children to try out new terms and ideas, while prompting them to explore and articulate their own thoughts, experiences, and emotions.
Yet where most of this kind of decontextualized language can be found is in written language. Written language tends to be more dense, complex, and abstract. Why is that?
By nature of being written, it is more formal (spelling has ossified, while sounds continue to shift) and constrained, while affording cultural transmission that can travel greater distances in time and space (i.e. knowledge can be passed onto future generations). But it is more abstract because it is removed from immediate context and nonverbal cues, thus there is more that is left out and that relies on inference based on shared, implicit knowledge. This lends itself to denser use of words, ideas, and sentences to try to convey more information more efficiently and precisely.
This type of language can begin to be introduced early in a child’s development not only by the methods mentioned above (storytelling, interactive dialogue) but furthermore by reading books aloud to children and talking to them about it. The language used in children’s books that are intended to be read-aloud is surprisingly sophisticated. This is why the recommendation for parents to read books aloud to their children is so critical to development. It exposes children from the beginning to more decontextualized language, which seeds the soil for later riches. And by talking with children about the books before, during, and after they read, children further develop more complex language through turn-taking and interaction around the content of the stories.
Reading and talking to kids about what we read builds the foundation for later literacy development – and literacy development enhances language and cognitive development. Reading books aloud, of course, will not teach kids the alphabetic principle nor how to decode words. But it is a crucial and critical foundation because it connects oral and written language.
And to reconnect back to the importance of storytelling and dialogic interaction, it needs to be made clear that simply listening to stories through screens is not sufficient to develop the kind of decontextualized language that leads to literacy. Researcher Horowtiz-Kraus and her colleagues have conducted research on children’s brains and how they are affected by exposure to screens. “There is no replacement for joint storytelling in engaging neuronal circuits related to future reading,” she says.
A Scaffold in the Brain
Notice how we have moved past simple frames of innateness and naturalness? Instead, we are talking about language and literacy – whether manifested in spoken, signed, or written form – not as a dichotomy but rather on a continuum between immediacy and abstraction. While oral language development clearly precedes written language development in early childhood, written language also scaffolds, accelerates, and enhances oral language development, and vice versa.
In other words, there is something nascent in our brains only fully realized through interaction, dialogue, and reading and writing.
Researcher Nadine Gaab and her team have scanned the brains of 140 infants with a familial risk for dyslexia and followed them over time. What they have found is that “babies as young as 3 months old have an underlying infrastructure that helps predict success in reading years later. . . “
“there is a structural brain scaffold in infancy that serves as a foundation,” Gaab explains. “Language and reading may be a process that refines this pre-existing brain scaffold” [Bold added].
From Scaffolding to Screens: Understanding the Developing Brain for Reading
While there may be something innate in our brains that readies us to receive language and literacy, it is not fully realized until those repeated, rich interactions with caregivers, stories, and texts are experienced. These interactions build fluency in our use of language, chiseling our brains into interdependent, specialized units that are then further interconnected and refined through reading and writing.
Landing on this idea of an inner scaffold in our brains that is refined and specialized by language and literacy sets us up to further explore how language relates to cognition. Are words and thoughts synonymous? Does one come before the other? Does language and cognition light up the same parts of our brains?
Stay tuned as we continue to explore these heady ideas in the next post.