Friday, November 05, 2021

The Problem With Literacy

One of the most entertaining parts of being a parent is collecting the charming, cute, and sometimes profound things your child says while in the process of learning to talk.

I've written before about how my family, to this day, will refer to VW Beatles as "mowers" because I once mistook the put-put-put of its engine for our family's gas powered lawnmower. A boy at school once said, "Those lights are looking at me" when they flickered on in the middle of the day. A girl insisted she wanted it to be "a day with pink music in it" when she wished to listen to rock music, equating the performer with that name with the entire genre. My own three-year-old daughter once sat silently in the backseat of the car musing on my having said, "Nothing is perfect" before quietly adding, "Except everything." As an infant, she would speak a word to me, consistently, that I can only write as "A-goo," although the way she spoke it contained a kind of gurgle in the back of her throat and a sort of coo and gentle smile that simply can't be captured in written language. I knew it meant "I love you."

We giggle at the mistakes and the mispronunciations. We are moved by their idiosyncratic metre and metaphor. We are awed when they use their new tool, their language, to show us a world in which nothing is perfect . . . except everything.

This is an ancient, ancient thing they are doing, this learning of language, as old as humans. And while the use of vocalization to communicate is hardly unique to our species, we have polished and refined it over time until it is one of the things that defines Home sapiens. For most children, they emerge from the womb expressing themselves vocally, sending their complex and insistent messages into the world that compel us to react with feeding, soothing, swaddling, cuddling, or whatever else we perceive they may be needing or wanting.

These "words," from the start, are active agents in the world, real things. In his novel As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner compares a "man of action" with a "man of words" finding the later lacking because, in a nutshell that does not do Faulkner's genius justice, actions speak louder than words. But I beg to differ. Words are our very first actions. Speaking the "words" that instinctively come to us from the moment we are born is the key to affecting change, to securing comfort, to everything. 

One might argue, "But those aren't proper words," then, I ask, what is a word? A dictionary definition might say it is "a distinct meaningful element of speech or writing." Certainly these first vocalizations are distinct meaningful elements of speech. The only difference between these words and the ones we typically think of as words is that they haven't been processed through the elaborate literacy machine that has arisen to standardize language. 

But not only does spoken language pre-date literacy, it does so by millennia. Socrates famously worried when he saw the Phoenician alphabet being adopted by the Ancient Greek world around him, a process that reduces our oral expression to a small collection of symbols representing a very narrow range of possible human vocalizations, then further confining it with grammar and punctuation and spacing and spelling. He was concerned, I think rightly, that the phonetic alphabet would make us less vital and intelligent and, indeed, less able to understand one another.

We tend to force the spoken language to follow the rules of the written. The purpose of grammar might be to aid in understanding, but can a comma really replace the pregnant pause of an actor or a child waiting before adding the phrase "except everything"? Oral language has volume, pitch, facial expressions, gestures, rhythm, and an infinite number of sounds at its disposal. What is a comma in the shadow of all that? The comma condenses it all into a dense dot, wrung of most of its unique and special meaning, until it just tells us to pause like a machine, then move on.

Oh, but babies are pre-literate. They are not limited to 26 letters and the rules of how to use them. Theirs is the ur-language with the full force of words in it. It's where the active magic, our real language, continues to survive. Our babies speak it into the world, charming, cute, and profound, each of them expressing not according to what limits us, but according to the limitlessness of our potential. 

Today we rush to force literacy onto even our babies, telling them earlier and earlier that theirs is the improper way to use words. When we do, I wonder if we short-circuit the natural development of language, robbing it of its magic, channeling it into the narrow, utilitarian paths we've created for it through the dictatorship of literacy. The least we could do, I think, is to wait a bit, to have patience, to give them time and space to become fully and truly orally literate, to explore the full range of human language before making them fit all of that magic into a few symbols, dots and dashes.


If you're interested in taking a deeper-dive into how our language impacts our relationships with young children; if you are keen to learn more about alternatives to commands, punishments, and rewards; if you're interested in speaking more respectfully and lovingly to young children, please consider registering for my e-course The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think. This will be the final cohort of the year. In this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Click here for more information and to register.

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