Musings about language and literacy and learning

Thinking Inside and Outside of Language

Talking is just recording what you're thinking. It's not the thing itself. When I'm talking to you some separate part of my mind is composing what I'm about to say. But it's not yet in the form of words. So what is it in the form of? There's certainly no sense of some homunculus whispering to us the words we're about to say. Aside from raising the spectre of an infinite regress—as in who is whispering to the whisperer—it raises the question of a language of thought. Part of the general puzzle of how we get from the mind to the world. A hundred billion synaptic events clicking away in the dark like blind ladies at their knitting.

Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy

A hundred billion synaptic events clicking away in the dark like blind ladies at their knitting.

OK, so let’s take some stock of where we’ve been thus far in our explorations of the development of language and literacy.

We’ve spent some time poking at the notion of whether learning to read is unnatural or not, and landed on the conviction that terming it unnatural–though useful as a rhetorical device–may be less precise than recognizing that learning to read and write is more formal, abstract, and distal from the immediate context of human interaction – and thus requires more effort, instruction, and practice to master.

We then turned to the development of language and discovered that even here–despite the ubiquity and swiftness with which native languages develop anew in every child across our species–language may not be as innate and inborn as it may appear.

Both language and literacy have bestowed humanity with sacred powers for the transmission and accumulation of cultural knowledge that seems to–as of yet–have no ceiling beyond that of our own destruction. Whether this is natural or innate or not may be beside the point. What does seem to be clear is that we have something inherited within us that is unfurled and reified by the networks that are riven across our brains through storytelling, interactive dialogue, and shared book reading that connects spoken to written language, and further strengthened with the hardwon fluency we manage to achieve on our own across modalities, texts, and languages.

The question of whether and why it can be so very difficult for some children to achieve that fluency with literacy–and, sometimes, to speak and understand language–is of great importance to educators and parents. What are the environments and interactions, strategies or programs that are most effective in helping children develop automaticity with language and literacy? And furthermore, what equips students to master the decontextualized language of academic disciplines in both spoken and written forms? This is essential for children to flourish and expand their intellect beyond that of the present moment and project themselves into our complex world and into our collective past to shape our collective future.

This leads us to our next frontier: the relations between language and literacy and cognition. Are words and thoughts synonymous? Does one come before the other? Do language and cognition light up the same parts of our brains?

We’ve done some exploration on this front before. In a previous post, aptly entitled Language and Cognition, we explored neuroscience that suggests that the areas of the brain that are used for language do not fully overlap or build on nonlinguistic cognitive abilities. I should note this–much as on the question of whether language is innate or not–is an area of some controversy and debate. Yet if we agree with the arguments made by The Language Game and Rethinking Innateness, this seems perhaps not so strange. If the evolutionary drive and primary purpose of language is social and communicative, and if language is not innate, then it makes sense that those areas of the brain that end up being co-opted by and specialized for language are not necessarily those that already existed for problem-solving and navigating the world.

The Kekulé Problem

While pondering this issue, I read Cormac McCarthy’s last novel, Stella Maris and it brought me back to arguments he had made back in 2017 in a fascinating article, The Kekulé Problem, written for Nautilus magazine. The character in Stella Maris, Alicia, whose savant-like intellect and imagination seems only capable of fully coping with her world through the frame of her own extinction, gives voice to McCarthy’s arguments from that article, and I think these claims are worth investigating as part of our inquiry into the relation between language and cognition.

Why did humans develop language, while animals have not? And how did it spread like a wildfire through our species, despite the great similarity between our brain architecture with those of our closest animal brethren?

The sort of isolation that gave us tall and short and light and dark and other variations in our species was no protection against the advance of language. It crossed mountains and oceans as if they werent there. Did it meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it. But useful? Oh yes. We might further point out that when it arrived it had no place to go. The brain was not expecting it and had made no plans for its arrival. It simply invaded those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated.

The Kekulé Problem

The arrival of language was like the invasion of a parasitic system. Co-opting those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. The most susceptible to appropriation.

—Alicia, in Stella Maris

This vivid image of the emergence of human language as a parasitic invasion may be startling, but it seems an apt description of what occurred. Something seemingly metaphysical–something from another plane of existence that had been heretofore unmanifest in the physical world–funneled into the crevices of our brains, took possession of our tongues, and pushed our larynxes down our throats–and continued to evolve through the fumbling but repetitive “games of charades” we engaged in with each other.

But what is language, even?

There are a number of examples of signaling in the animal world that might be taken for a proto-language. Chipmunks—among other species—have one alarm-call for aerial predators and another for those on the ground. Hawks as distinct from foxes or cats. Very useful. But what is missing here is the central idea of language—that one thing can be another thing. It is the idea that Helen Keller suddenly understood at the well. That the sign for water was not simply what you did to get a glass of water. It was the glass of water. It was in fact the water in the glass. This in the play The Miracle Worker. Not a dry eye in the house.

The Kekulé Problem

The shared understanding that one thing can stand in for another. This revolution in spoken and signed languages mirrors the much later cultural revolution of written language, in which arbitrary symbols can be agreed upon by a community to represent the parts of a word. This is the sacred power of language and literacy with which humanity has been gifted. And yes, I use the word sacred intentionally, because there is some evidence that the ceremonies and rituals associated with mythical-religious development in early human societies emerged at around the same time as language emerged. Meaning that language has developed through a communal engagement in ritualistic interactions with objects and sounds that became imbued with a meaning other than what they were in the everyday world.

We’ll get into that part another time, as it’s worth geeking out on, but let’s stick with McCarthy some more for now. He made the important point that language imbued us with the ability to communicate that one thing can represent another, and that this symbolic capacity is foundational to human civilization and our subsequent achievements.

But he then explores something more unsettling, and which was perhaps suggested by that research we investigated earlier on the surprising distinctiveness between language and cognition in brain scans: our brains, as with those of other animals, have been operating biologically for a very long time with an unconscious alacrity that serves the purposes of survival and navigation of our world very well. And the unconscious does not seem to prefer to communicate its solutions to us in a verbal manner.

The unconscious is a biological system before it is anything else. To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.

Problems in general are often well posed in terms of language and language remains a handy tool for explaining them. But the actual process of thinking—in any discipline—is largely an unconscious affair. Language can be used to sum up some point at which one has arrived—a sort of milepost—so as to gain a fresh starting point. But if you believe that you actually use language in the solving of problems I wish that you would write to me and tell me how you go about it. . . .

. . . But the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesnt much like language and even that it doesnt trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?

The Kekulé Problem

This somewhat disturbing account of the unconscious is clarifying in that it sets cognition against and apart from language and for examining their distinctions. The unconscious is capable of great feats of problem-solving that extend far beyond that of mere survival. Advancements in math and science abound with tales of sudden solutions to complex, theoretical, and seemingly intractable problems arrived at seemingly out of nowhere. Hence, Kekulé. Some research suggests that learning can be further solidified after a period of sleep.

Yet McCarthy’s argument doesn’t seem to fully account for the forms of cognition that can be enhanced by language and literacy. When we read something we are deeply engaged with, we enter a state of flow, in which the language on the page seems to enter into our stream of unconscious being. When we write, we grapple with the things we have been sensing or feeling but haven’t yet been able to articulate. In wrestling to put our words to the page, we are forced to formulate a more precise understanding that we may not have had prior to the effort. Perhaps then to be further rendered asunder or refined by our unconscious.

The argument I have mounted in this series is that languages and literacies drive rivulets and then torrents of increasingly interconnected throughfares in our brains that become strengthened the more automatic–and thus, unconscious–those languages and literacies become. And the more automatic and unconscious they become, the more cognition we have to expend on more targeted and specialized efforts, which have the potential to take us to higher and higher planes of ability. Think of the musician who practices every day, whose fingers unconsciously and without effort flutter, hold, and pluck across the strings in pursuance of a dynamic ebb and flow of a melody or feeling while at the same time working within a complex and formal structure.

We are exposed to and practice language every day from the moment we are born, which is perhaps why it develops so swiftly. But when we practice a discourse that requires more exertion, that is more decontextualized from our everyday habituation, when we first learn to read, when we first read a challenging or specialized or historical text, when we sit alone to write, when we debate with curiosity, and not with anger, a colleague, when we put together a presentation for a critical audience, we must put in the work over time to become more fluent in that form of discourse so that we can jam out at a higher level of virtuosity and feeling.

And yet, as McCarthy suggests, there may be something that we have lost when language invades our brains.

All sorts of talents and skills must have been lost. Mostly communicative. But also things like navigation and probably even the richness of dreams. In the end this strange new code must have replaced at least part of the world with what can be said about it. Reality with opinion. Narrative with commentary.

–Alicia, in “Stella Maris”

When written language emerged, Plato similarly warned against what might be lost. When we gain greater powers of symbolic representation and abstraction, we also gain powers that can be used for the manipulation of others. Yet is this more, or less brutal, than the animal world in which power is exerted purely by physical prowess and force?

What are some implications?

So where does all this leave us? Methinks there could be some practical implications from this extended rumination, despite how heady all this may have been. And certainly, there will be more to come!

Here’s a few I can think of:

What do you think?

#language #literacy #Kekulé #CormacMcCarthy #unconscious #innateness #natural #unnatural #cognition