Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Everyday Miracle of Language

Sandra Parshall

If you’re reading a writer’s blog, reading is probably an important part of your life. Maybe you’re like me – you’re compelled to fill idle moments with words, and your eyes seek out print wherever you are. If you forget to take a book to the doctor’s office, you’ll read six-month-old issues of People and Sports Illustrated in the waiting room. Anything will do, as long as you can read.

Writing and reading are uniquely human activities, unlike language itself. Most animals have some sort of language, a way of communicating with others of their species. Dogs bark, cats meow, monkeys screech to alert others to danger, birds
sing or call to attract mates, claim territory, sound alarms. Honey bees “talk” to each other with dance-like movements that identify the locations of good foraging spots. One way or another, animals communicate with other animals.

Humans, however, are the only animals that can write and read our languages. How did our species develop the ability to preserve and pass on information by using marks on a page? What goes on inside our brains when we read those little marks? And what do tree branches have to do with reading?

You won’t be surprised to learn that this subject has been studied in depth – we’re also the only animals who examine their own behavior to find out what makes themselves tick.

French cognitive psychologist Stanislas Dahaene, author of Reading in the Brain,
is one of the most prominent researchers into the neuroscience of reading. He talks about his discoveries and observations in an interview in the March/April issue of Scientific American Mind. When we read, regardless of the language, we all use a region of the brain in the left hemisphere that Dahaene has nicknamed “the letterbox” – the visual word-form area. The “letterbox” is part of a larger brain area that helps us recognize objects, faces, and scenes and is especially attuned to natural shapes in the world around us. When humans began writing their languages, they created symbols – letters – using shapes the brain already knew.

Every written language on earth uses the same basic shapes drawn from nature. For example, if you look up at a tree, you’ll see the “Y” shape over and over. Keep looking and you’ll see all the angles, curves, and circles that people have woven into their written languages.

The marks we call letters have no inherent meaning, either alone or combined with other marks to form what we call words. They mean whatever we say they do. When children learn to read, they’re actually learning to decipher a form of code – grasping the idea that each “word” represents an object or an abstract concept – and learning to do it so rapidly that it becomes automatic. That’s a monumental achievement for a little kid, don’t you think? And yet the vast majority of children are able to do it early in life.

The next time you see a kid reading something, whether it’s a novel or a comic book or a web page, take a minute to appreciate this everyday miracle and to remember, if you can, the excitement you felt when learning to read opened up the whole world of written language for you.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I'm a huge language fan--took a history of language class in college and loved it!

Great post, Sandra--I'm tweeting it.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Anonymous said...

What a great post! I'm always fascinated by how the mind works, how we humans are always analyzing the how's and why's of it all. And you're absolutely right: language is a miracle, one to be celebrated.


SG Redling said...

Great post. We all take language for granted until, as writers, we're responsible for wrangling it into its most elegant shape. It's a fascinating topic. If you want to read a great book on the subject, try "The Unfolding of Language" by Guy Deutscher. He calls language the greatest invention never invented. Amazing. It'll make you curious about every word coming out of your mouth.

Julia Buckley said...

I loved learning to read. I remember that in first grade the biggest word we learned was children, and I was very proud that I could spell such a long and sophisticated word.

My second son was furious, as a toddler, that his older brother could read and he couldn't. It was like his sibling belonged to some secret society from which he was denied access. So for him reading was a sweet, sweet acquisition.

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