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Words, Words, Words!

First, a public service announcement. If you do not currently listen to Radiolab, you are missing one of the best audio programs in existence. This is what they say about themselves:

Radiolab believes your ears are a portal to another world. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience. Big questions are investigated, tinkered with, and encouraged to grow. Bring your curiosity, and we’ll feed it with possibility.

How could you not want to go listen right now? Or when your done reading my blog post. Seriously, you can’t give me five minutes? Patience truly is a lost virtue.

End of public service announcement.

So, the most recent Radiolab program is on words, more specifically “A World Without Words.” Yes, the radio program examined “a world without words.” (And that, dear Alanis, is irony.) The format of radiolab is to examine one idea through a variety of stories or perspectives. I’m not going to go through them, because you should go listen and be awed. When you’re done reading this post. However, I will transcribe a bit that then set off a train of thought and brought out the homeschooler in me. Because that’s my filter through which all things flow and everything brings out the homeschooler in me.

The set-up: Rats and very young children cannot combine two cognitive processes, such as right/left with another process such as color recognition. Older children can. The hypothesis is that language is the key to combining these processes. To test this, the experimenters set up a situation with adult volunteers where they “batter the words out of the adults head.” (Not violently, just using a process of shadowing someone speaking.) Anyway, once the language is driven from their heads, these adults are unable to make these cognitive combinations of right/left and color combinations.

This conversation followed the description of that experiment. Charles Fernyhough is a developmental psychologist, Jad Abumrad is one of the hosts.

Jad: But Charles, what I’m wondering is if language allows you to construct a thought that is so basic as “the biscuit is left of the blue wall,” what is thought without language?

Charles: Well, I don’t think it’s very much at all.

Jad: What do you mean?

Charles: I’m going to put it in a different way, and this involves making quite a controversial statement. I don’t think very young children do think.

Jad: Like, think period? Was there a period at the end of that sentence?

Charles: I don’t think they think in the way I want to call thinking. Which is a bit of a cheat, but let me say what I mean by thinking.

Jad: Okay.

Charles: If you reflect on your own experience, if you think about what’s going on inside your head as your just walking to work or sitting on a subway train, much of what’s going on in your head at that point is actually verbal. I’m going to suggest that the central thread of all that is actually language—it’s the stream of inner speech. That’s what most of us think of as thinking.

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This illustrates how important language is to thinking. Which was further developed in the last story about deaf students in Nicaragua. I won’t spoil it, but do go listen. You’ll see what I mean.

All of which lead me to the thinking of words as tools. Tools of thought. And this is how that train of thought ran along the tracks: More and/or better tools mean you can make more/better things. Anything: machines, foods, buildings, anything really. Better tools allow us to make better things.

Words are tools for thought. Therefore more and better words allows a person to think better. Seriously, listen to the last story. It illustrates this point perfectly.

The homeschool application: when we converse with our children (converse–exchange words, not talk at), we put tools in their cognitive toolbox. When we read to them, specifically books that offer new and challenging ideas and vocabulary, we add to the toolbox. When we play with the dictionary with them, we are putting more and more tools in their tool boxes which allows them to think more and better.

We pretty much all know this. Reading increases our intelligence. People who are more verbally adept seem sharper. But maybe it’s not because of what they know, but because they have the tools in their toolbox to think better, to make connections, to see nuances because they have the language to describe it. Words are powerful tools, but they are tools that are readily available to almost anyone in our culture.

And that is perhaps what is most profound, not that language is a powerful, but how this tool is readily available to almost everyone, and how it is undervalued and overlooked.

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