Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Power of Language in Childhood Creativity

Certainly the most amazing thing we will ever accomplish is over and done with by age five. Scale Mt. Everest, swim the Pacific, be the first person to walk on Mars, and it doesn't matter--your very biggest accomplishment is resting softly behind you with no laurels, no medals, and hardly a thought put into it after the milestone of preschool is reached. Of course, what we're talking about is the aquisition of language.

But to say "the aquisition of language" and act like we have a true understanding of what we speak of is to make the greatest understatement in human history. To aquire, master, or even understand any form of language is to gain a cognitive universe, full of ups, downs, emotions, colors, textures, and thought. All of these notions that we have about what reality is are based on the way that we use language. Our very perceptions of reality would shift dramatically without this basic skill.

Much has been written about this that I'd love to quote, but a blog entry can only be so long and, after all, I have a point to make somewhere after this meandering, so let me show you what I'm talking about.

Words as a substitute for understanding

When my oldest daughter was just beginning to speak, she expressed her curiosity about the world through her use of language. We, in turn, showed her the world that surrounds her by also using the language. As she aquired words, she not only had ways of saying things, but she aquired understandings about the world around her. And, even if she ultimatley didn't understand the concept she was trying to grasp, using a word as a replacement for the understanding being sought was enough for her.

Here's a good example: She started to wonder where I went all day. She would wake up, and I wouldn't be there most days of the week. For her, the universe is small, the population mainly centered in and around our house, and she, of course, couldn't fathom what it was I was doing not within the framework of her universe. She said this by shaking her head, putting out her arms, and saying, "Daddy? Where Daddy?" Easily enough, her question was posed.

The answer was, "At work."

And every day, she would nod and say, "At work."

This progressed. After a week or two of this question/anser jag, she started coming into the room and announcing, "Daddy at work."

Let me ask you this: what did a 14 month old know about "work?" Nothing, really. It was a place that Daddy goes instead of staying at home. She couldn't possibly know that this was normal for daddies everywhere, or what a myriad of different meanings "work" can have, both by definition and by context. But she was more than willing to take that word and use it as understanding, as meaning. And only now that she's three does she have much of an understanding at all.

Our kids do this with everything we teach them. Every little tiny thing. They take it as understanding and meaning. So how we present the world to them doesn't just offer description of a reality, but it gives them the only reality they know. This is heavy stuff. This is their world.

Okay, so what do we do with this information?

First of all, beats me. I mean, this is a big realization, that our responsibilities are not just to teach our children to speak, but to actually design the world that they live in. My wife could have easily told my daughter that I was off "killing" instead of being at "work." And it would be easy to show the ways that my part in the system of education can lead to things like poverty and war and deaths. And this is the world that she would be living in now.

But I think this presents us with great opportunity. I don't think that children should be molded. I think it's unavoidable that we should show them our beliefs and our ideals, but I don't think they should be forced. And I think this realization about language is a chance to steer things away from the brainwashing of the world.

Instead, I think we should see the aquisition of language as a great chance to nurture their creativity. Try and expand their vocabulary, especially if you speak English. English has more words than any other language ever has and is the only language that requires a thesaurus. It is a shame that we use so little of these words.

One of the greatest writers of English was Joseph Conrad. In his very slim book, The Heart of Darkness, he shows how versatile and beautiful the English language can be. It can be, in fact, much more like mood music when describing a scene or an action, and the understanding of his meaning comes across in painted pictures rather than concrete descriptors.

This is, of course, notable because Joseph Conrad held English as his third language. His outside perspective of the language enabled him to see the true spectrum. He was free of the usuage of language that his parents and peers employed.

In many ways, it would be ideal if our children were free from the bonds of language that we impose on them. And in other ways, they will be; afterall, children get their accents not from their parents, but from their peers.


No. But I think it's important as a caring father to have an expanded awareness of how we raise our kids. Creativity is an attribute that should be cultivated in our children, regardless of how it helps them do on standardized tests. We should embrace their interpretations of the world and let them indulge in their own thoughts and ideas as much as we can. Encourage them to play with language. Engourage them to think outside of the box. Ask them their interpretation of the world before offering them the easy answer. You may be surprised and, hopefully, you'll be open to the idea that you are no more right than they are; you just agree with the majority.


Redsy said...

Love your site. Love. I'm linking you up over at Babble/Strollerderby today...
Hope you don't mind.

--Rachael/ Redsy

Sol Smith said...

Thank you! That means a lot!