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With the above quote in mind, it seemed fitting to establish an online space dedicated to Wittgensteinian commentary on language, literacy and learning. What then is commentary that is particularly Wittgensteinian? It is commentary that is in the spirit of the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. However, for many (most) visitors, that description may not be particularly helpful at all.
For a full discussion of the relevance of Wittgenstein to this site, I refer you to the "Why Wittgenstein? Why not simply a site about literacy and learning?" page. In the meantime, Wittgensteinian commentary more broadly places an emphasis on becoming-ness, for want of a better term. We become speakers of language. We become readers and writers. We become parties in conversations. We become participants and practitioners. We become knowers and connectors. We become members of communities. We become these things given that we have access to the right conditions and opportunities.
Wittgenstein would regularly evoke the image of the child to remind is that our learning is not often acquired rationally and reflectively. Instead, much of our learning arises from the training we receive from our interactions with others as we navigate common (and contrasting) forms of life and investigations.
Whilst we may exhibit the biological capacity to use language and to acquire knowledge, the exact language we develop and the exact knowledge we construct is a product of our lived experience interacting with others in a form of life.
The literate individual has benefited from enabling relationships as well as access to adequate spaces, time, resources and formative experiences that aid and reinforce what it means to be literate. It is indispensable to acknowledge that literate practices are refined in collaboration with others (having people to talk to, to read with and to write to).
On one hand, becoming a literate individual involves a control of a notation that needs to be mastered. It takes time and regular practice to master / control this code. This control involves the dimensions of phonology, orthography, semantics, syntax, morphology and pragmatics.
It is true to note how novice users must endure early stages where it is a challenge to gain mastery of manipulating the structural and formal elements of the linguistic symbolism before being able to speak and listen and read and write with confidence. The individual regularly encounters new forms, content and contexts where his or her literacy and knowledge will be challenged and extended. One's literacy journey is never complete; however, it does have stages.
On the other hand, language is not merely a system to be commanded. It is a range of expressive tools used amongst ourselves in context to describe, record, discover, speculate, share and explore. A user's repertoire of language practices - or language-games - can be correlated to the user's participation in the collective intentional activities in communities of practice, which include both verbal and non-verbal activities. Language and literacy occur within the great hurly burly of life.
It goes without saying that the experienced language/literacy user takes many items for granted. It is helpful to forget that it was once quite a challenge to read and hear that code, to shape letters with delicacy, to retrieve a word from memory and understand its spelling, to form a sentence, to make sense of sentences whether they appear in poetry or in a textbook, to write in a manner fitting the occasion and the audience, to allow oneself the time to read-interpret-and-learn, or to gather ideas together for expression.
Therefore, it is important to recognise that there is a cognitive or psychological dimension of mastering the code, developing schemas and deliberating over the reading and writing process. Yet there is also the cultural or social dimension as one masters a repertoire of texts, practices, beliefs and knowledge that make up one's cultural and social participation. If we refer to Stanley Cavell’s terminology, we can see the human form of life as existing across two planes: “a vertical (or biological) [plane] – whereby the human form of life is distinguished from other forms of life (higher and lower); and a horizontal (or ethnological) [plane], which accounts for socio-cultural differences within a form of life.”
There are certain skills that are essential to having the capacity to access literacy. This involves developing confidence with the fundamentals, exploring new words, preparing and accepting knowledge, and establishing methods and practices. But it also involves one appreciating and incorporating the role of "textuality" into one's life, such as writing lists, emails, letters, notes, poems, etc. And it is bolstered when one experiences positive encounters of meaning making (and learning) through talk and texts with others (e.g. sharing a favourite book with someone you respect).
Language, literacy and learning require the development of ways of seeing, ways of working and ways of relating to others. They require the development of competencies, methodologies, appreciations and relationships. They require an appreciation of others in the literate community when composing a message, so that a message is conveyed in a way that will "hit that target squarely and rightly". Because rarely is a message received as intended by the expresser. Skills are required on both sides of the equation for successful communication.
What - then - is all this kerfuffle about language and literacy? What do robust language and literacy skills enable? I can sum up the importance of language and literacy in three words: independence, control, and participation. A person who speaks on his or her own behalf and who is a skilled reader and writer can independently advocate for him- or herself and navigate his or her own learning. And since literacy is a constructive skill (as Wittgenstein's picture theory suggests), the individual learns ways to control and critically reflect on experience. And the development of language and literacy skills amongst a community of practice allows one to participate in that group, to contribute to that group and to find a valued identity therein.
Language, literacy and knowledge allows one to shape the world around one and they allow for one's perception of the world to be shaped by others. Literacy allows one to access information; construct and organise knowledge; participate in a community of practitioners; adopt the many ways of being readers and writers; and persuade (and be persuaded), inform (and be informed), entertain (and be entertained) … ponder, explore, speculate upon, confirm and represent experience.
It is clear, though, that not everyone experiences the same "broad stabilities" that equip individuals to master practices, develop robust language(s), acquire an evolving literacy and gain the knowledge that allows one to live in and navigate a form of life in the stream of living. For instance, it has been well documented that children of low socio-economic backgrounds in developed, urban contexts are often less prepared for the traditional linguistic activities of the classroom than their more affluent peers (Hart & Risley, 1995). This places the children at a disadvantage which is exacerbated over time by the implicit class bias of formal schooling (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990).
Writing about Aboriginal learners in a remote desert context, Igne Kral (2012) states that “literacy [is only] one facet of a rich nuanced language environment that embraces a vast spectrum of multimodal - oral, written, visual, gestural and symbolic - forms of communication. … Studies [must address] the anthropological concerns associated with … identity formation; socialisation and learning; and cultural transmission and reproduction across the generations" reflective of context, culture and history. (Kral, 2012, pg. 2)
We must be interested in whether individuals have access to safe spaces and enabling relationships to develop the language, literacy and knowledge with trusted teachers & mentors that will serve them in their participation across the lifespan.
In conclusion, a Wittgensteinian approach to language, literacy and learning recognises that learning is impacted by the formative experience of one's engagement with the world and others, which combines both interpersonal and intrapersonal development. The language, literacy and learning practices that individuals interpret and engage in are part of not only their language development, but also their social development.
Please explore the many sections of this site: the journal, the glossary, the ever-expanding readings, and - most importantly - the particular topics that discuss Wittgensteinian commentary on the elements of language and literacy, the adoption of learning practices, and the active construction of knowledge. If you have a comment, a suggestion or a question, then please do not hesitate to send us a message.
Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J. (1990). Reproduction in education, society and culture (2nd ed.). London: SAGE Publications.
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.
Kral, I. (2012). Talk, text and technology: literacy and social practice in a remote Indigenous community. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.