Loss of Language = Loss of Thought

I used to really enjoy watching mysteries,  but there are two things about them I’ve noticed that seemed to me to reflect the downward trend in reasoning skills. Years ago when watching some of the better mystery shows, ‘whodunnit’ was part of the pleasure of watching- there was a puzzle to figure out. Now, it’s pretty obvious on all these shows who dunnit, and in many cases they don’t even attempt to be tricky about it. And, in an apparent attempt to cut back on the amount of dialogue and plot detail required of the writers, an increasing number of television shows use up air time by including what amounts to an MTV music video for part of each episode.

I get the appeal. It’s evocative. It’s far easier to trigger an emotional response from viewers if you grab them with a series of images overlaid with a good song. It hits all the right buttons and requires little in the way of plot construction and nothing in the way of dialogue scripting. The viewer is not required to think, only to feel.

And since an increasing number of us can’t think, that’s another reason to go the music video route for a few minutes of every episode.

Loss of language among the younger population — that is to say, the ability to formulate and enunciate properly constructed sentences that reflect clear thought — is growing at a staggering rate in the United States. Even among students whose academic aptitude is well above the national average, my years as an undergraduate business professor show that four out of five will make grave spelling errors in written assignments or exams, and about half that regularly commit grammatical blunders. The ubiquitous confusion between “there” and “their” may still be considered a quaint and negligible fluke that nearly creates a new orthographic norm; the inability to express lucid arguments must not.

What is being lost is the capacity to think in terms of cause and effect, of distinguishing between differing levels of argument, and particularly any appreciation for abstraction. Increasingly, students expect to be spoon-fed with concrete examples, operational instructions, mechanical repetitions, and pictorial representation. The loss of language is but a symptom of the loss of thought — and losing thought means losing much more.

This lack of reasoning ability can be seen in many areas.

There is a curious reluctance to think about the nature of things, maybe as a result of decades of teaching that there is no such nature apart from what one wants them to be. Rather, students increasingly see the world phenomenologically — as a haphazard arrangement of “stuff” and of events informed by the sensory impressions of their own experience but devoid of any structure.

Surveys show that the average American receives some 5,000 external stimuli per day and spends more than eight hours a day in front of screens — television, computer monitors, cellphones, gaming consoles, and so on. Where in earlier ages people worked in their gardens, played an instrument, went fishing, read books, entertained guests, or engaged in conversation with family or friends, they have become passive and speechless consumers of canned content. These screens help produce a people that is losing its language. But more importantly, these people no longer see structures in their world but rather a bewildering juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated events. Vicarious living and proxy experiences are the deeper problem with our students’ loss of language.

I saw another example of this recently in an online discussion of the cost of Obama’s health care program. Whatever you think of it, there should be some rational understanding of the fact that no Congressional program in history has ever cost less than Congressional estimates, that the cost estimates require ignoring certain factors- like the way businesses will find it cheaper to dump their employees’ health care on to the government, and yet there are people who still insist that the program will save money and cost no more than Congress projected it would.

In order to think critically, one must be able to keep causes apart from effects, fact from interpretation, belief from knowledge, definitions from explanations, and much more. Critical thought requires determining the range of alternatives and applying to them a clear and consistent standard of evaluation.

But not only is such standard often amiss after years of indoctrination in relativism, even the range of alternatives is not clear. Understanding what scholastic philosophers have called the status quaestionis has become a challenge. Students often simply do not understand the nature (and grammar) of the question and match it with a fitting answer format. It is a problem of losing language and the ability to work with it logically, creatively, and yes, critically.

And during the course of the CPSIA debacle we saw example after example of how public schools have failed citizens in helping them to understand the difference between belief and knowledge, kept them from any acquaintance with critical thought and defrauded them of a civics education to the point where hundreds of sweet Etsy artisans seriously believed that Obama was just going to overturn the CPSIA- even though his party wrote the bill, he never voted against it when in the Senate, and he couldn’t overturn the law even if he wanted to.

In our society, the power of language has declined. How are students to understand the world of the Bible if curses, blessings, or vows are no longer understood as performative speech acts that have (often immediate) efficacy? How are they to deal with the Catholic view of sacraments, according to which the saying is a doing and brings about an ontological change in the world? How can they relate to the Word (Logos) not referring to or being a name for Christ but being God (Jn 1:1)? How can the greeting, “Peace to this house!” be such a “big deal” that it actually brings about peace (Lk 10:5-6)? How can students still appreciate classical pieces of literature that have protagonists who offer their lives for a promise made?

I remember a sweet friend of ours thinking Sense and Sensibility was really just a waste of time, and she couldn’t understand why Eleanor made such a fuss about things instead of just telling Marianne that Edward was engaged to another girl. We would say, “But she promised not to tell,” and our friend would look blankly at us and say, “So? It was her sister,” as though promises were nothing.

The blame does not lie with students (although a bit of personal effort might surely be expected). It lies largely with two or more generations of indulgent and misguided educators and with the political guardians of education. Too often the “it’s like” phenomenon has been shrugged off. If educators, who are meant to carry the torch of literacy and learning, do not regard these developments as calls to action but dismiss them as a necessary by-product of benign cultural change — “You know, I’m not sure I could do it myself” — we suffer from a major dislocation. Our education then no longer has standards to which we educate, or if it does, they are not about outcomes measured in knowledge or skills. And it reveals rhetoric about “liberal education” as nothing but hot air.

This Bedford Ohio company has interviewed 3600 people and found 47 who can read and do math at a ninth grade level.

My husband has a coffee mug that says, “You just can’t fix stupid.” That explains a lot.  Unfortunately.  We no longer believe we have a moral obligation to use  our brains.

I’m not even sure the majority of Americans are sure about the meaning of the words ‘moral,’ and ‘obligation.’  Thinking has become a burden, and I think this is at least largely due to our diminished vocabulary.

Thinking requires language, and our language has been diminished.

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  1. Rebekah
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of a piece of news I heard on the radio recently. The show host was complaining that our English language, specifically our punctuations, were now inadequate to describe emotions. Someone had created a new list of over- simplified and obnoxious punctuation marks. I just kept thinking, the problem is not with our langauge, the problem is that no one knows how to use it properly. Old authors like Dickens, Twain, etc seem to have been able to wield our language to convey sarcasm and other emotions. The problem is definitely with us!

  2. Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of a chapter from The Elegance of the Hedgehog in which one of the characters puts forth the following ideas about language:

    “Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language…. I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility.”

    “… pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.”

  3. Maggie
    Posted March 5, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    It astounds me how often and how easily people are impressed with my children’s speech and vocabulary. I own and manage a used bookshop, and since we homeschool my children are sometimes here with me. One day I reminded my 3 year-old to go back to the conference room, and she said “I’m talking to the customer.” The customer in question was amazed that she used the word “customer.” This sort of thing happens all the time.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted March 5, 2013 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      Me, too, Maggie. Our son was extremely delayed in his speech, so much so that sign language was really his first language, and we called him our cave child, because he communicated largely through signs, gestures, and grunts until he was 4. Then he started talking, but still, for another year or so, he was still well behind where all of his sisters had been at the same age, excepting the Cherub, of course.
      We were at a family camp when he was just barely 4 and so just starting to be understood by outsiders, and a Headstart teacher was there. She was amazed at his ‘advanced’ vocabulary. He was 4 and he was not even using full sentences, but she insisted he was far in advance of his age. That made me so sad.

      With our second child we had to have her hearing tested when she was about 4, and then speech pathologists took a look at her (she had a very odd speech impediment- made her sound like the Swiss chef muppet)- they also said they had never met a child with such a large vocabulary. She actually did have a big vocab- she’d been speaking since she was about 8 months (even short sentences).

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