Death of a great idea and birth of another one

Last year I wrote an article about the Wigan Language Project for Creative Teaching and Learning, an excellent journal published by Imaginative Minds.

This was a follow-up to a piece I wrote for them ten years ago called Mind Your Language. The Director of the company, Howard Sharron, had  suggested that it was time for a review of why my course Breakthrough to Learning had not been widely adopted (even though the test results showed that it doubled the percentage of pupils in a comprehensive school gaining 5 or more GSCE’s grades A – C in 1991 – from the national average of 30% to 57%). This second article has now appeared under the title Death of a great idea.*

Howard has had one of his good ideas based on conversations with teachers in secondary schools about the problems pupils encounter in mastering the language of particular subjects, especially science and maths. He suggests that I write a series of articles examining the language of specific subjects.

I told him I could only do this if I could work with a teacher in each subject, who would at least give me materials to work on. We are both thinking of people we can contact to initiate such a project.



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Language and thought

My own work takes the point of view that thought does not exist independent of the semiotic system which encodes it – art, maths, music and, of greatest interest to me, language.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the argument that thought is conditioned by the structure of language, is an old one. Whorf had described the language of the Hopi Indians and showed that their language encoded obligatorily certain concepts which we do not have in the Indo-European languages. For example, nouns are inflected to include the difference between long straight things and round things. Concepts of time are encoded differently in the verbs.

A later article (1981) by A.H. Bloom compares Chinese and English at the level of the clause. There is, it seems, no specific grammatical structure available in Chinese for what applied linguists call the third or hypothetical conditional: If you had called me, I would have come at once. Bloom calls this “counterfactual”. I looked up my (elementary)Chinese grammar and it gives examples of only the first and second conditionals: If you really want to buy a car, then buy one. If I were you, I would marry him. It gives no example of the hypothetical conditional.

Apparently, the author’s Chinese students found the idea of a hypothetical condition not merely difficult: they found it offensive and “unChinese” to imagine the consequences of an imagined untrue situation. This meant that they could not understand an important academic concept.

A.H. Bloom (1981):The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: A Study of the Impact of Language on Thinking in China and the West, LEA New Jersey

The Songlines 2

In this marvellous book, Bruce Chatwin does more than describe the Australian songlines. See last blog. What follows are my words, not his.

He suggests that human beings have been nomadic hunter gatherers for two million years and settled farmers for only eight thousand years. Our brains are therefore wired up to a life like that of the Australian aborigines (before the white man destroyed it). We struggle with our settled existence: we are designed to walk, not to sit or to labour. This idea resonates very strongly in me, as I was passionate about walking, both on my own and with my rambling club and felt completely at home and fulfilled when walking. Chatwin quotes the Buddha: “You cannot travel on the path before you have become the path itself.” That is exactly what it felt like. Continue reading

The Songlines

Bruce Chatwin (1987) republished Vintage 1998 (out of print but obtained, through Amazon, from Oxfam Walthamstow for £0.01 plus postage).

I read this many years ago, but wanted to re-read it after reading the description of the illiterate stone  age people speaking hundreds of different languages in Papua New Guinea (Vanishing Voices). It is hard to imagine a society, until recently without writing, largely isolated in their mountain villages and trading with people speaking non-cognate languages. I remembered The Songlines about the Australian aborigines, which describes the life of nomadic hunter gatherers, whose languages are embedded in a culture utterly different from ours. Continue reading