A Perspective on the Development of Language & Literacy

The following is a republication of the website's front page as a blog entry. As a blog entry, the discussion presents a synthesis of the author's thoughts on Wittgenstein, language, literacy and learning …. 

“Working in philosophy - like work in architecture in many respects - is really more a working on oneself. On one’s interpretations. On one’s way of seeing things.” — Wittgenstein, Culture & Value

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.

Wittgensteinian commentary emphasises a becoming-ness,  for want of a better term.  We become speakers of language. Webecome 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. 

“When a child learns language, it learns at the same time what is to be investigated and what not.” — Wittgenstein, On Certainty, 472

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.

“As Wittgenstein insists in a number of places, the use of expressions in our language depends on the existence of broad stabilities and continuities that we take for granted — and it is important that we do take them for granted. Without the stabilities and continuities in ourselves and in the world, certain language-games would, in fact, not arise.”” — Fogelin, 2009, pg 170 - 171 (see readings)

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. 

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 (e.g. share a favourite book with someone you respect).

“Without an affective investment and commitment, our words become unintelligible and empty; with that commitment words begin to show other manners of signification beyond the realm of literal meaning and correspondence.” — Krebs, 2010, pg 138 (see readings)

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 controland 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.  

“The pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world, and that what is said must be worth saying, have a point (warning, informing, amusing, promising, questioning, chastising, counting, insisting, beseeching, specifying the location of pain, and so on) ... If it is part of teaching to undertake to validate these measures of interest, then it would be quite as if teaching must, as it were, undertake to show a reason for speaking at all.” — Cavell, 2005, pg 115 (see readings)

It is clear, though, that not everyone will benefit from the "broad stabilities" that enable 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.

There are many risk factors which can impede an individual's ability to engage and grow in language, literacy and learning. Poverty, mental illness, disruption and deprivation are some. Many individuals lack safe spaces or enabling relationships to develop language, literacy and knowledge with trusted teachers & mentors. In other cases, the language of instruction lies outside the learner's previous experience and the learner's capacity to grasp onto the learning.

In still other cases, the learner may be unable to reach closure on skills gained, is unable to draw connections between the learning and his/her living, or is unable to incorporate the skills into practices that are sustained, reinforced and rewarded. 

In critical cases, there may be a severe disconnect between the world of "sanctioned learning" (e.g. school learning) and the lives and cultures of some (or many) of the students who attend.  In such case, the learner may be an emerging language user in a native speaking classroom or in an environment in which the teacher and other classmates assume certain knowledge and/or skills that places the learner outside an optimal learning space.

“Put a man in the wrong atmosphere and nothing will function as it should. He will seem unhealthy in every part. Put him back into his proper element and everything will blossom and look healthy. But if he is not in his right element, what then? Well, then he just has to make the best of appearing before the world as a cripple.” — Wittgenstein, Culture & Value

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.