BTL: based on Linguistics not Psychology

During the last few months I have been discussing Breakthrough to Learning with Diane Houghton, my good friend and in the eighties my colleague in the Department for English for Overseas Students at the University of Birmingham. I have been struggling to explain to her the academic basis of my work.

Last week I think we made a breakthrough. She had been expecting me to relate my work to cognitive psychology. The text which I commented on in my last blog – on the changes to consciousness made by literacy – are examples of work in this field. This was going on in the eighties at the same time as Breakthrough to Learning was being devised and tested. Continue reading

Writing and abstract language

The strength of “Vanishing Voices” is that it sees language, not as something abstract and isolated, but always embodied in, and a part of, social practice.

In his book on the salt trade* the historian, Samuel Adshead, relates the development of the state to the written language needed for administration. He writes:

“Both politics and bureaucracy required the new higher literacy of classical languages embodied in canonical texts: Homer, the Zeud Avista, the Vedas and Upanishads, and the five Confucian classics.

“Pre-classical language, mainly unwritten, was confined to the spatial, the specific, the objective, the human and the concrete. Classical language, essentially written, provided concepts for the temporal, the generic, the subjective, the divine and the abstract.

“The new classical languages everywhere widened horizons, but they created deep social division between those who possessed the new literacy, the aristocracy and urban males with a minimum degree of leisure, and those who did not, women and country people – farmers, fishermen and miners.”

This describes very well the gap between the concrete language of everyday life which everyone has access to without going to school, and the abstract language of learning and power.

The gap between those that have abstract language and those who have not remains. The success of Breakthrough to Learning showed that appropriate teaching can close that gap.

* S.A.M. Adshead: Salt and Civilisation (1992)

Vanishing Voices

Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine (2002) “Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages”, OUP, USA

This is a wonderful read. First, the authors’ evocation of the pre-literate, fluid world of hundreds of languages co-existing in a limited area, such as Papua New Guinea. These are the languages which are endangered by the modern world.

Second, the authors pull no punches in describing economic reasons for the death of languages, namely colonialism by the European powers (and now the United States), which robs tribal peoples of their resources in the search for raw materials.

Third, they make an interesting case for bi-lingualism as a way of saving the hundreds of languages currently under threat, giving Denmark as an example. Here Danish remains the language of home and give s people their identity, but resources are poured into schools to make sure that Danes also have an excellent command of the world language, English.

The effect of the written language is mentioned, but it would be interesting to read more about the impact of literacy in saving endangered languages.