Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mistaking “communication” for language… and shortchanging those with language impairments

I wrote earlier about how we Americans view grammar as rote and dry and largely dispensable. When it comes to that warm, fuzzy, alternative to grammar, namely language, we make similarly wrong-headed but contrasting assumptions. “The language of dance”—or of music, or of art—we see language as involving anything remotely communicative. Dog owners claim that their pets understand English; students of language acquisition, that the cries of newborns exemplify early language, and students of autism, that nonverbal individuals who click on buttons displaying pictures and keywords are ipso facto using language.

But all sorts of things are communicative without involving intentional communication. A clock communicates the time; rings on a tree communicate how old it is; even a rock dropped into a dark well is “communicative”: how long it takes to say “plop” tells you how deep the well is. A newborn who cries when she is hungry may be no more intentionally communicative than a clock or a tree or a rock; her cry may simply be an innate, reflexive response to hunger that happens to communicate something to knowing adults. When a dog runs to the door when you say “Do you want to go on a walk?” it probably isn’t parsing the question into subject and predicate and/or calling up the word definitions from long term memory; rather, it’s responding to a holistic sound pattern.

So, when a nonverbal autistic child pushes the “drink” button on a keyboard, how do we know whether he understands the definition of “drink,” and/or has conceived the intention of communicating to others? Perhaps, after months of therapeutic “conditioning,” he is simply performing an act (a click on a particular button) that he associates with a particular consequence (getting something to drink).

Nor is even intentional communication a sufficient condition for language. For what’s truly special about language is that we can use it to refer to things out in the real world and express ideas about them. Coffee tables, coffee, the hypothesis that drinking coffee may help prevent Parkinson’s disease or extend life, the question of what it would mean to leave forever. Whether the language is English or Igbo or Navaho, and whether that language is spoken or signed or written, there is no limit to what it can be used to refer to and what it can express about that referent.

The arts are different. As expressive as Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor is, neither its composer nor its performer is intentionally referring to anything other than to music (or sound) itself, and any “ideas” the composer, the piece, or the performer expresses are purely musical. Anything else evoked in our heads, or hearts, is a product of our own personal associations and sensitivities to the music.

Arguably there are better examples than music. Paintings, for example, are more plugged into the world out there, and can, in a sense, refer to coffee and coffee tables. But they, too, fall far short of the power of language to communicate arbitrary ideas—for example, the thought I’m expressing in this sentence. Math is a language of sorts, but it only expresses ideas about quantitative and spatial entities and relationships. Computer programs, though seemingly more expressive than math, live inside computers and don’t to refer to things in the real world, let alone express ideas about them.

How is all this relevant to education? Because nowhere is this misconception of language—as anything remotely expressive or communicative--more evident, and more problematic, than in the ed world. Wedded to the notion of Learning Styles, it has led to a debilitating complacency in language arts instruction, especially when it comes to kids with language delays or writing deficits. Combine the notion that art is a form of language with the notion that some kids are “visual” rather than “verbal” learners, and teachers can confidently assign dioramas rather than book reports, certain that students aren’t missing out on anything important, let alone in dire need of linguistic remediation. Or they can watch an autistic child doing complex math problems and celebrate the fact that his language is “the language of numbers”--without worrying too much about teaching him ours.

Finally, confusing the merely communicative with the intentionally so, and mere key words with full-fledged language, and teachers (and others) may fail to provide the necessary linguistic instruction (including grammar!) to help a “nonverbal” child move beyond the limited words, pictures, and pre-packaged phrases of the Dynavox, or PECS, or rudimentary "Signed English" either to a more open-ended communication device like a touchscreen or keypad that can express any possible English sentence, and/or to another true and fully expressive language like American Sign Language.

1 comment:

cranberry said...

It gets worse. From the Common Core "Key Points in English Language Arts:"

Just as media and technology are integrated in school and life in the twenty-first century, skills related to media use (both critical analysis and production of media) are integrated throughout the standards.


Yet more time (class time, homework time), deducted from the valuable practice of reading text and writing, well, anything.

So, maybe you can't write an essay about nuclear power, but you can participate in a group of students producing a short video on nuclear power. You can search for images of nuclear plants. Or you can find the music. It's all skills, isn't it?