Language & Literacy


In a previous post, Thinking Inside and Outside of Language, we channelled Cormac McCarthy and explored the tension between language and cognition. We dug in even further and considered Plato's long ago fears of the deceptive and distancing power of written language in Speaking Ourselves into Being and Others into Silence: The Power of Language, and how bringing a critical consciousness to our use of language could temper unconscious biases and power dynamics.

If you find any of that interesting, I recommend reading this short interview, How to Quiet Your Mind Chatter in Nautilus Magazine with Ethan Kross, an experimental psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Michigan.

Two relevant quotes:

“What we’ve learned is that language provides us with a tool for coaching ourselves through our problems like we were talking to another person. It involves using your name and other non-first person pronouns, like “you” or “he” or “she.” That’s distanced self-talk.”

“The message behind mindfulness is sometimes taken too far in the sense of 'you should always be in the moment.' The human mind didn’t evolve to always be in the moment, and we can derive enormous benefit from traveling in time, thinking about the past and future.”

Check out the full interview here.

#language #research #unconscious #cognition

Researchers with gifts This has been a great year for education research. I thought it could be fun to review some of what has come across my own limited radar over the course of 2023.

The method I used to create this wrap-up was to go back through my Twitter timeline starting in January, and pull all research related tweets into a doc. I then began sorting those by theme and ended up with several high-level buckets, with further sub-themes within and across those buckets. Note that I didn’t also go through my Mastodon nor Bluesky feeds, as this was time-consuming enough!

The rough big ticket research items I ended up with were:

  • Multilinguals and multilingualism
  • Reading
  • Morphology
  • The influence of physical or cultural environment
  • The content of teaching and learning
  • The precedence of academic skills over soft skills
  • Brain research and Artificial Neural Networks

Innate vs developed

We have spent some time picking away at the tension between the generalizations and assumptions made around whether reading and writing development is natural or unnatural.

We continue this exploration, except now we dig into an even more fundamental aspect of human development: language. Language development is a seemingly magical evolutionary development that humans have uniquely adapted—or for which language is uniquely adapted for—to the surviving and thriving of our species.

Are we born with innate capacities for language baked into our brains—a 'universal grammar'? Or do we develop and hone these capacities—albeit, rapidly—through exposure and use? Is it both? If so, how much is innate, and how much is developed? And in what way do these continued advancements of language and literacy across the generations enable our cognitive, cultural, and technological achievements? And in what way might they at the same time magnify the biases and base motivations of those most able to leverage power to manipulate others? In other words, how much does language and literacy bring us into a more generative engagement with ourselves and our world, and how much does it create a distance that may lead to destruction?

This journey continues in this series of posts:

#language #literacy #innate #natural #unnatural #development #cognition

Talking is just recording what you're thinking. It's not the thing itself. When I'm talking to you some separate part of my mind is composing what I'm about to say. But it's not yet in the form of words. So what is it in the form of? There's certainly no sense of some homunculus whispering to us the words we're about to say. Aside from raising the spectre of an infinite regress—as in who is whispering to the whisperer—it raises the question of a language of thought. Part of the general puzzle of how we get from the mind to the world. A hundred billion synaptic events clicking away in the dark like blind ladies at their knitting.

Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy

A hundred billion synaptic events clicking away in the dark like blind ladies at their knitting.

OK, so let’s take some stock of where we’ve been thus far in our explorations of the development of language and literacy.

We’ve spent some time poking at the notion of whether learning to read is unnatural or not, and landed on the conviction that terming it unnatural–though useful as a rhetorical device–may be less precise than recognizing that learning to read and write is more formal, abstract, and distal from the immediate context of human interaction – and thus requires more effort, instruction, and practice to master.

We then turned to the development of language and discovered that even here–despite the ubiquity and swiftness with which native languages develop anew in every child across our species–language may not be as innate and inborn as it may appear.

Both language and literacy have bestowed humanity with sacred powers for the transmission and accumulation of cultural knowledge that seems to–as of yet–have no ceiling beyond that of our own destruction. Whether this is natural or innate or not may be beside the point. What does seem to be clear is that we have something inherited within us that is unfurled and reified by the networks that are riven across our brains through storytelling, interactive dialogue, and shared book reading that connects spoken to written language, and further strengthened with the hardwon fluency we manage to achieve on our own across modalities, texts, and languages.


the inner scaffold

The Acculturation of the Mind

There is a fertile topsoil we are born with in our brains, imprinted by the interplay of sights and sounds and movement of those who interact with us. This immersive communicative theater, felt first in the womb, roots itself within the immediacy of each moment, even while gesturing at distant realms yet unknown. Climbing towards this mystery with our tongues and thoughts and technology bends the world toward our needs, and allows us to project our inner selves into the past and future. We ride rivers and build highways across our brains. This is our cultural inheritance, our storied legacy of language and literacy.


connection to the world

There was a fascinating summary thread I came across recently that I want to dig into, as there’s some really interesting and rich areas of tension to unpack. Here’s the thread

What especially caught my eye and made me ponder for days afterwards was this:

The language network does not overlap or build on nonlinguistic cognitive abilities . . . fMRI evidence from 32 experiments, with 64 conditions, and 761 participants across 1,007 scanning sessions suggests language is separate from thought – when processing non-linguistic stimuli other areas are activated compared to when processing linguistic stimuli . . . The language system does not share resources with other cognitive abilities.

Language is separate from thought. I really struggled to understand this . . . isn’t language how we think, whether conscious or not?

Fedorenko argues that there are properties of language that suggest is is not suitable for complex thought, but is well-suited for communication . . .For example, language processing is fundamentally predictive, something that wouldn’t be useful if language was primarily used for thought and not communication. Although the language network and other cognitive abilities seem to be distinct systems, they need to integrate in some way. Shedding light on this integration is a key direction for future research

Where language does intersect with other cognitive systems, however, according to this presentation, is “some exciting new research emerging that language is intimately linked with the system that supports social cognition, such as Theory of Mind.”

Another tantalizing tidbit in this thread relates to syntax and word meaning:

language does not rely on abstract syntax. Syntactic processing is distributed across the language network and “every syntax-responsive cell population or brain area is robustly sensitive to word meaning” . . . . In every region, even at the most fine-grained level of analysis shows that there are no selective responses to abstract syntactic structure – everything that responds to structure building also responds to word meaning.

Well now, I want to unpack that one a bit more! It seems to suggest that word meaning i.e. semantics i.e. vocabulary/morphology is higher leverage than syntactical structure.

All of this really got me thinking, about thought and cognition, about language . . . and especially about how adding in literacy — a writing system — complicates all of this . . . I mean, writing is a form of thought, right? I sometimes don’t think things, or know what I think about things, until I force myself to write it. Does reading and writing connect cognition and language in a way that language itself does not?

In pondering about this thread further, I threw out the following on Twitter:

Is working memory a component of the executive function construct? Or an inter-related but separate domain?

I got some great food for thought in response to this query — Corey Peltier, Courtney Ostaff, and Andrew Watson confirmed that working memory is typically understood as a component of executive function — the cognitive system of thought that would appear to be distinct from language.

Lisa Archibald then went in deep on the relation between working memory and language, and it’s worth digging into her specific points, as they bear challenges to some of the points made above in the earlier thread.

Key points she makes that I found very helpful:

  • What is activated and therefore measured depends on the nature of the task
  • Whether the brains scanned are children or adults matters, as adult brains are more specialized
  • Just as with emerging reading/writing skills, language development requires more cognitive attention until we are fluent
  • And similar to struggling readers and writers, students struggling with language (i.e. DLD / SLI) have to apply more cognitive energy to using language accurately, which makes meaning/content/thinking harder to get to

She also referred me to another thread from DLD and Me that gives a neat way of framing this as unity but diversity — i.e. there is a single pool of resources of executive function (unity) but there is a diversity of different types of tasks we’re trying to apply that pool of resources to

Whew! This is heady stuff. Share your thoughts and Discuss...!

#language #cognition #DLD #workingmemory #executivefunction #literacy #thought #brain