Language & Literacy


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.


Colors of the mind Language is a uniquely human phenomenon that develops in children with remarkable ease and fluency. Yet questions remain about how we acquire language. Is it innately wired in our brain, or do we learn all facets rapidly from birth?

Two books – Rethinking Innateness and The Language Game – provide us with some fascinating perspectives on language learning that bears implications for how we think about learning to read and write, and furthermore, for how we talk about the power and limitations of AI.


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.


OK, we’re here, at our third paper in our series examining the naturalness, or not, of gaining literacy.

  • Liberman, A. M. (1992). Chapter 9 The Relation of Speech to Reading and Writing. In R. Frost & L. Katz (Eds.), Advances in Psychology (Vol. 94, pp. 167–178). North-Holland. Liberman comes strong out the gate with seven claims on why speech* is “more natural” than written language:

In our last post in a series exploring the question, “What is (un)natural about learning to read and write?,” we looked at a paper from 1980 by Phillip Gough and Michael Hillinger, Learning to Read: An Unnatural Act, that provided a counter to Ken and Yetta Goodman’s argument that learning to read is natural, and provided us with a useful analogy: learning to read an alphabetic writing system is a form of cryptanalysis. Using this analogy, Gough and Hillinger drew out a fine-grained distinction between a code and a cipher that allowed them to make some precise observations about the difficulty of breaking the alphabetic cipher that have held up quite well over the years.


Learning to Read: An Unnatural Act

In our last post in this series exploring the question, “What is (un)natural about learning to read and write?,” we looked at a paper from 1976 by Ken and Yetta Goodman that argued that written language is a form of oral language and thus, learned naturally in a literate society through exposure and use in the environment.

In this post, we’ll explore a direct counter to that argument made by Phillip Gough and Michael Hillinger in 1980.


This is the first post in a series examining the question of what is natural and unnatural in learning to read. In this first post, we’ll unpack a controversial paper from Ken and Yetta Goodman.

In this presentation/paper, the Goodmans make the argument that in a literate society, learning written language is as natural as oral language because it is part of their functional environment.

“Language learning whether oral or written is motivated by the need to communicate, to understand and be understood.”


The most fundamental questions and debates in a field of study can often be the most illuminating to the topic. Debates about the value of literature and the arts today, for example, can still be traced back to Plato and Aristotle.

A fundamental debate related to this blog’s focus has revolved around whether learning to read and write is natural or unnatural. This may at first glance seem a trivial question, but it turns out that the “reading wars” have circled around it. And it seems to surface continuing unresolved tensions between the studies of language and literacy development today.


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.