Language & Literacy


an image from behind the looming silhouette of the word, "Libertyville" astride a hillside overlooking a city at night.

Weaving back in a short poem to start our post:

The Influence Unseen of the Words We Use to Be

Part I: 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.

Part II: The Shadowed Underbelly of Words

Yet this glorified development harbors dissonance as well, darker truths of the animal and spirit world we project beyond ourselves and thus, distort. As we entangle each other in our webs of words, we may mirror and magnify influences unseen, that inarticulate undertow of us vs. them. When we summon forth our disgust and anger at someone or something else and wrap them into words until our vision becomes blinded, we may become its prisoners, trapped in the enchantment of language itself. As Alicia lived in the interlocution of the pages, the chatter of our minds can lead us unto rifts within. Do animals go mad, other than when rabies infects their brains? Language, in this sense, is viral, amplifying our extremes while shrouding our ensnarement. We can paint a veneer of progress over the denatured scars we leave behind.


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

The first thing that happened to reading is writing. For most of our history, humans have been able to speak but not read. Writing is a human creation, the first information technology, as much an invention as the telephone or computer.

—Mark Seidenberg, Language at the Speed of Sight

What is (un)natural about learning to read and write? We began our quest with this question, prompted by two references in a line in a David Share paper.

Like learning to read (English) which Gough famously dubbed “unnatural” [43], see also [3], becoming aware of the constituent phonemes in spoken words does not come “naturally”.

—Share, D. L. (2021). Common Misconceptions about the Phonological Deficit Theory of Dyslexia. Brain Sciences, 11(11), 1510.

This led us to unpack three foundational papers from 1976 to 1992 that have provided us with some surprising twists and turns and even moments, dare I say, of clarity.


A drawing of a brain

As I began my great awakening to the relatively extensive body of research on reading, one of the claims of reading research proponents that I’ve picked up on and carried with me is the idea that reading is unnatural and our brains were not born to read. And this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, given that oral language has been around for a very long time (though we don’t know, of course, exactly when it showed up), while writing systems only showed up roughly 5,000 years ago.