Archive for the 'language' Category


Elements of Style

I am rather busy as of late, and so blog updates are sparse. Thus I recommend you other reading material, such as this interesting and important article by Geoffrey Pullum on the shortcomings of Strunk & White’s classic prescriptive grammar, The Elements of Style.


þū scealt rædan, or, The Etymology of Reading

Steven Roger Fischer writes on the etymology of the verb to read in his A History of Reading:

Many early mediæval Angles, Saxons and Jutes read in runes, though some of them also commanded the Latin tongue and script. The Old English word rædan (originally meaning ‘consider, interpret, discern’ and so forth) came to mean not only ‘read’, but also ‘advise, plan, contrive, explain’. When still on the Continent these German tribes had encountered Roman writing, which, they perceived, required ‘discerning’. So, through transference and figuration, rædan came to mean also ‘interpret signs or marks’, then eventually ‘peruse and utter in speech’. (145)

Besides the Old English rædan, a lot of words related to reading have their root in the Latin verb legere ‘to read’: lector, lecture, legend, lexicon. The Roman languages and German also go back to the Latin: German lesen, French lire, Spanish leer and Italian leggere.

What’s interesting is that the Old English rædan emphasises the deciphering of symbols, whereas the Latin derives from the Greek legein ‘to say’, stressing the fact that reading represents speech. I have had an opportunity to notice this difference recently when I read Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader, whose German title Der Vorleser translates as “the person reading aloud to someone else”.

Schlink’s book broaches the problem of reading and interpretation, in this case concerning the experience of the Holocaust. The novel’s female protagonist, Hannah Schmitz, delights in her lover’s reading aloud to her from plays and novels. A former warden at Auschwitz, Hannah remains (both willfully and involuntarily) ignorant of her past crimes. Only when she starts reading herself about the the atrocities of Holocaust does she begin to question and interpret her actions. Reading for herself helps Hannah make sense of her own life and, ironically, speaks louder than the stories she listened to.

Fischer, Steven Roger. A History of Reading. London: Reaktion Books, 2003. The picture is from Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading.


Language and the Reading Brain

Language is innate. Reading isn’t. That’s the hypothesis of Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid:

[…] reading and other cultural inventions differ from other processes; they do not come “naturally” to children, unlike language or vision […] Across all written languages, reading development involves: a rearrangement of older structures to make new learning circuits; a capacity for specialization in working groups of neurons within these structures for representing information; and automaticity — the capacity of these neuronal groups and learning circuits to retrieve and connect this information at nearly automatic rates. (169-170)

An important piece of evidence supporting the idea that we do not possess a reading centre in the brain comes from brain scans of readers of different languages. The scans reveal that readers of English, a language with an alphabet system, activate different parts of the brain than readers of Chinese, a syllabary. The Chinese reading brain does not display any activity in the temporal-parietal region; and although both English and Chinese readers use the occipital-temporal region, the English do so using only the region of the left hemisphere, whereas Chinese readers work across both hemispheres.

So is language in the brain and reading isn’t? No. Because as we learn how to read — or learn any other skill, for that matter — the brain rewires or strengthens certain circuits, allowing us step-by-step to automatize certain processes and thus enabling us to take reading to the next level, comprehension. Language, on the other hand, is in the brain from the start. At least that’s the claim of linguists supporting the innateness hypothesis, prominent proponents of which include Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. The argument for language being innate draws on diverse areas of language processing and acquisition: the learning rate of language in children; language among deaf children; sophisticated language among primitive tribes; the inability of animals to acquire language; specific and inherited language disabilities.

Wolf comments on the latter area at length in her chapters on dyslexia. In a significant number of cases, dyslexia appears to be linked to regions of the brain that are crucial to language processing, such as Broca’s area or Wernicke’s area. Wolf mentions an experiment by Isabelle Libermann and Don Shankweiler whose results suggest that deaf children struggle with reading not so much because of their lack of auditory perception but because they do not have the necessary phonological representations of sounds within words. Libermann and Shankweiler concluded that when it comes to reading cognitive awareness of the sounds in a language is more important than being able to actually hear the sounds. Despite the importance of phoneme awareness (alongside the ability to decode graphemes) and the role of language regions, Wolf maintains that a failure to read can have various sources in the brain, ranging from visual to auditory to speech impediments. Her conclusion: “Voilà: the sum of these hypotheses [about the roots of dyslexia] looks like a decent approximation of the major parts of the universal reading system.” (177) A reader’s brain, in other words, functions like a computer in that it wires different sections of the brain together so as to produce the miracle we call reading.


Learning How To Read

More from Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid. She devotes a chapter to how the brain learns to read, which reminded me of the old argument amongst linguists as to whether language is innate or not. Children learn languages at a phenomal pace and with such effortlessness that linguists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker (in his The Language Instinct) have concluded that the capacity for language must be an integral part of our genetic makeup. Geoffrey Sampson argued against such a position that the learning prowess of children may derive from a general (rather than a language-specific) learning ability and that, in any case, children show equally impressive progress in other areas of learning. However, I find Pinker’s account more convincing, not the least because of the second “trump” in his argument besides infant learning, namely language disabilities. Pinker lists many speech impairments whose specific nature (affecting only certain grammatical structures or vocabulary areas) suggests that certain parts of the brain are almost exclusively dedicated to language processing. This is a fascinating area of language research and I’m curious about what Wolf will have to say on it.

Irrespective of whether or not children are already equipped with language skills at birth, they still need to learn how to speak, read and write. Up to the age of three, children truly are linguistic geniuses and no matter what you throw at them (even a second language!), they will likely profit from it in some way or other. From age 3-4, things get trickier because you now have to take into consideration the child’s existing knowledge and self-awareness, and thus move within the zone of proximal development to produce efficient and effective learning.

Adorableness beats fear of copyright infringement!

Maryanne Wolf offers some advice on how to go about this. She cautions parents who worry about their child’s reading progress not to try and hurry the child’s development by forcing it to write and read correctly. Research indicates that preschooling your child’s development in such a manner may in fact hamper it later. Wolf recommends that parents (a) read to their children — this enriches the passive semantic and syntactic knowledge of the child (alongside, of course, a knowledge of concepts, social skills, empathy, and so on), which at a later stage will make reading easier and more pleasurable — and (b) offer opportunities to experiment with the sounds of language — playing around with letters, pronunciation, spelling, and listening to nursery rhymes, poems and songs. This will enhance the child’s ability to grasp the underyling phonemic and semiotic principles of a language. In other words, a child has to become familiar with the idea behind naming things and the nature of letters first, only then can it successfully tackle a more complex idea such as character-phoneme correspendece; therefore, it is better to foster an understanding of these ideas and wait with the actual reading and writing until age 6-7.


This and That

A fascinating discussion of the pros and cons for summative which, this, and that in expository writing at the Language Log. I tend to use summative this a lot in my writing, and I’ve never been able to assuage my fears that this might be a stylistic faux-pas. Now I can rest easy.