The Machinery of Language and Literacy

In light of the most recent blog entry - Encoding, Decoding and Understanding (Print) Language - I've gone back to the archives to revisit an unpublished piece from the past. Whilst there are some rough edges, it is posted here as part of the ongoing conversation.



The layout of the diagram to the lower right might seem odd when it starts with “the world” as the notion at the top and "form of life" at the bottom, but this is to suggests that language and literacy are learned in a particular context. And the context determines the language(s) one speaks and it determines what one is likely to speak about.

In the words of Wittgenstein and Tomasello we find:

“When a child learns language it learns at the same time what is to be investigated and what not.” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty #472)
“‘Nothing could seem less remarkable than a one-year-old child requesting ‘More juice’ or commenting ‘Doggie gone’ … From an ethological perspective, perhaps the most astounding fact is that something on the order of 80 percent of all Homo sapiens cannot understand these utterances at all.” (Tomasello, 2003, pg 1)

Let’s say English is a language that is spoken in this environment. And - let’s say - that the word “Madagascar” exists in this world, and I hear the word “Madagascar” uttered in this place of the world. It also refers to a film (that I haven’t seen, but am aware of) and it is a type of vanilla (Madagascar vanilla), which I don’t know much about, either. There is a history to the word, and this history is its meaning. One points to a map to show me where the country is. One offers to watch a film with me. And one shows me a picture of Madagascar vanilla, and - perhaps - I have a chance to taste it. As long as I know that places, films and plants have names, then it is possible that I can know what is being referred to.


Phonological Awareness & Phonemic Awareness

I ask someone to say the word slowly, so I can have a go at writing the word, because if one is going to recognise the printed word, one must first be phonologically and phonemically aware of the word.

When I listen closely, I notice that Madagascar has four syllables:


Ma / da / ga / scar


One must also distinguish each of the sounds within the word:


[/m/+/short a/] + [/d/+/schwa/] + [/g/+/short a/] + [/s/+/k/+/ar/]


Alphabetic Principle, Phonics & Spelling

Then I attempt to spell the word based on my knowledge of English graphemes


M = /m/

a = /short a/

d = /d/

a = /schwa/

g = /g/

a = /short a/

s = /s/

c = /k/

ar = /controlled vowel - ar/


I’m pretty confident the opening letter is M to represent the /m/ sound, since I intuitively know that the letter “m” represents the /m/ sound most of the time (94% of the time to be accurate, if you see the chart to the right/above). Similarly, I know the /short a/ sound when I hear it. Whilst the letter “a” represents the /short a/ 96% of the time, I only appreciate this from experience. To make a long story short, I know the word “scar” and intuit that the word ends with the same spelling. I could be wrong, but this is when one’s word knowledge helps one problem-solve new words. That said, I might have spelled it incorrectly, and I might need to consult someone or something (e.g. a dictionary) to see if I am on the right track.

In the end, I heard a word, and I used my phonemic awareness skills to isolate the sounds. I used my knowledge of sounds-letters and my knowledge of words to spell it. If I didn’t have any of these attributes then I could be overwhelmed by the length of the word, etc. But I wasn't. Phew!



For the time being, let’s say I recognise the word and I know that there is nothing quite morphological about the proper noun Madagascar. There are no meaningful prefixes, roots or suffixes which would assist me.


In a Sentence

Do we ever really encounter words only in isolation, though? As noted by Wittgenstein,

“If I know an object (word) I also know all its possible occurrences in states of affairs. (Every one of these possibilities must be part of the nature of the object/word.)” (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, #2.0123)


In this case, I read the following state of affairs:


Madagascar is an island country in the Indian Ocean.


I am lucky. I know English grammar, and I am familiar with all the words - when spoken - but I struggle with the written form of the printed word “island”. I am familiar with the spoken word, which is pronounced


[/long i/] + [/l/+/short a/+/n/+/d/]


But I don’t know about this


[/short i/+/s/+/l/] + [/short a/+/n/+/d/]


But a helpful person informs me that the letter “s” is indeed silent, and the opening letter “i” is a /long i/ syllable. In fact, the printed word “island” is familiar in the end. What a relief?


Sentences in Context

I know the sentence is a descriptive sentence, and I know that it is meant to convey information. I use my background knowledge to place the sentence in context. This sentence comes next:

The population of Madagascar is over 22 million people, and it spreads over 500,000 square kilometres.

I recognise that the emerging paragraph is a geography paragraph and I anticipate that I’ll find out about the capital city of Madagascar, primary industries, natural sites and cultural practices. I know this because I am familiar with this genre of discourse, and I expect and value this knowledge. I intuitively am comparing this with a similar text I read/heard/wrote earlier. The earlier one was about the island of Taiwan, and I am interested to know the differences between the two island contexts. If I didn’t have this previous experience or background knowledge, then I might not be able to read/hear/write the new text as deeply or critically.


Another Attempt

Let us look at another set of words. Let’s imagine that a friend shows me a photo of a red wheelbarrow sitting in the rain and provides with the following poem:


“so much depends



”a red wheel



“glazed with rain



“beside the white



“It’s beautiful,” she says. “It’s by a fellow named William Carlos William.”


I’m not really fussed by the poem, to be honest. And I don’t know why it starts with the phrase “so much depends / upon”. But my friend insists that the poem is meaningful. Even though I know all the words, and I can understand/imagine the scene, I am missing something. So my friend asks me to bring in a photo of something that is significant to me. When we meet again, we both come armed with a photo. My photo is of my late grandmother, and her photo is of a pier jutting out into a river at dusk. She reads out her poem.


“so much depends

upon ...


"the smell of

the river


"of bait, of fish

and blueberries


"on hot summer



And she helps me write mine:


“so much depends



"my grandmother's



"on the mantle



"watching over



We do it again next week, and the week after, and I start to get the point. I find it peaceful just stating something meaningful. My friend and I might talk about the “meaningfulness” of the object in the photo, but these "meanings” or even descriptions are left unsaid in our poems. At some stage, she introduces me to haikus, and I find that I have a new way to relax. Every so often I stop and write or think or say “so much depends upon …” I didn’t understand the point at the start but I do now, and I have started to branch out into other forms/purposes of poetry. I’m really quite surprised. In fact, it takes on a form of meditation or secular prayer. Whilst I still need to draft reports and memos at work, I have another written outlet that extends what I achieve in print. I have learned a new "language game" - so to speak.



Let’s return to the opening diagram, and we find the following:

  • We live in a world;
  • And in that world there are “things”, “concepts”, “phrases”, “relationships”, etc;
  • These “things” have words, whether they are physical, like “a rock”, or conceptual, like "kindness”;
  • Some of these words are functional and appear in phrases or as single words, like “How are you?” and “therefore”;
  • The words are strung together in sentences to express some sense/meaning, and those sentences are strung together as part of a discourse of some kind;
  • And we communicate about something in some way to others.

To end, let me present the following scenarios:

  • an experienced electrician is wiring up a new electrical system. The electrician knows what everything is called and what everything does, but quivers when someone hands him an installation manual full of words and abstract schematics. “Mate, I can’t makes heads or tales of that thing” as he points to the manual. “I know what I’m doing.” Is it the technical nature of the manual that catches him off guard?
  • a philosopher is asked to wire up a new electrical system. The philosopher has no clue about electronics and quivers at the sight of the wires. Someone hands him an installation manual full of words and abstract schematics. After much effort, the philosopher eventually says, “Mate, I can’t makes heads or tales of that thing” as he points to both the manual and the box of wires.
  • an average person who is familiar with electronics, but is in no way an expert or practiced, is asked to wire up a new electrical system. She has a strong grasp of literacy and she is able to process information accurately. She knows what NOT to do in relation to voltage and amperage. She is eventually able to get the job done with the help of the manual, a few YouTube videos, and a couple calculated phone calls.

How would you go about explaining what is occurring in each of these scenarios? You may use the following diagram to help.



Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Tractates Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge.

_____________. (1969). On Certainty. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Translated by D. Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Harper Torchbooks.