Thought and Language

Mali’s point about speaking with conviction is a very good one: “In case you haven’t realized, it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about?” He’s being very meta, of course, by actually enacting the phenomena he is describing — using an interrogative tone when he is actually making declarative statements, interjecting with mindless phrases like “you know what I’m sayin’?” etc.

He is basically showing us the way the average teenager speaks all of the time, and the way many adults speak too much of the time.

I plan on showing this video to my kids next semester.

But I think his video raises other questions, like: What is the relationship between language and thought? How does the way we speak reveal the way we think?

Yet the funny thing about language is that it not only reflects our thinking — it also shapes it.

A lot of people think of language this way:

you think something  —- THEN —- you say it

ie: language REFLECTS thought.

When really you should take into account this phenomenon:

you say something —- THEN —- you think it

ie: thought REFLECTS language.

That is, you have to be very careful what you say. Because you might start actually believing it.

People who go around searching for compliments by saying things like, “Oh I look so horrible today!” or “I don’t think I’m going to do well on that test!” — not because they actually believe it, but because they want affirmation, often end up believing those statements if they say them often enough.

What you say and how you say it shapes what you think and how you think it.

I see this all of the time with my students.

But to be more precise, the commonly accepted temporal succession between language and THEN thought, or even thought THEN language, is really quite silly. Thought and language are more like the chicken and the egg. Which came first? Well…

Your average dualist would probably say thought came first, then language.

But I’m not so sure.

“In the beginning was the WORD” (John 1:1). The nicely ambiguous thing about logos though, in Greek, is that it kind of means both “word/speech” and “rationality/thought” at the same time.

One of the things my kids say to me all the time is: “I know the answer, Ms. Shea, I just can’t say it.” Or “I remember it, I just can’t put it into words.”

False.

We have all felt this way, but we are all deceiving ourselves. As a teacher, I have found that if you cannot put something into words, then, practically speaking, you don’t really know what you’re talking about at all.

When you really and fully know something, you can also articulate it.

*Caveat: For certain people with certain learning disabilities, there may be some kind of gray area here. But for the average person without said learning disabilities, I think my claim holds up pretty well.

What’s the point of all this?

Well:

1. I think an English teacher really needs to ponder this relationship between language and thought if she plans on helping her students write, read and think coherently. So much of the difficulty in teaching, after you get past the classroom management / grading / parental horrors, comes down to getting inside the heads of the kids and figure out what the heck is going on and how to help them fix it. That’s why I try to focus on “metacognition” so much in my classes.

2. The famous Catholic “both/and” of grace and nature shows up everywhere. Separating thought and language, soul and body, grace and nature, scripture and tradition, form and matter is the kind of Gnosticism our culture suffers from very badly these days. When you separate things like that you are unable to see either of them clearly.

3. The mysterious immateriality of language and thought shouldn’t make us forget how intimately tied both are to the “stuff” we are made of — neurons and gray matter etc. But neither should it make us reduce language or thought to our neurons and gray matter either. If that is *all* thinking is, then we have really no reason to trust it.

Poets seem to understand this language-thought, word-world thing better than most.

Here is one of my very favorite poems by Richard Wilbur. Note his description of how the English language works — and his Edenic imagery at the end. For him, in Paradise, language and thought, word and world, were not separate as they are now.

Games Two 

:

From barren coldness birds

Go squadroned South:

So from the hollow mouth

The way of words

Is East. When written down

As here, they file

In broken bands awhile,

But never noun

Found what it named; for lame,

Lost, though they burn

For the East, all words must turn

Back where they came

From, back to their old

Capital. Still,

As pilgrims on a hill

Fallen, behold

With failing eyes from far

The desired city,

Silence will take pity

On words. There are

Pauses where words must wait,

Spaces in speech

Which stop and calm it, and each

Is like a gate:

 

Past which creation lies

In morning sun,

Where word with world is one

And nothing dies.

Update:

Found this beautiful reading of the above Wilbur poem, as well as some others: “Joining World and Mind: On the Poetry of Richard Wilbur” by Rhina Espaillat

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Filed under Education, Poetry, Teaching

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