What Language Makes Possible

The Lost Art of Language

by Lynn Donovan McCann ’58

When I returned to teaching 10 years ago, well past retirement age, I never dreamed I would have to explain to college students the difference between a subject and a verb. The appalling state of language education to prepare young people for undergraduate work—much less wholesome participation in society—moved me to present and publish at several professional conferences.

I’m a Master of Social Work, a published author, and an editor. I currently work therapeutically with a successful novelist whose traumatic brain injury (TBI) has compromised short-term memory and the ability to compose her thoughts on paper. I teach writing at a small, urban community college where I’ve become keenly aware of problems with listening, speaking, and writing that seriously undermine the progress of my students. These two roles intersect in unexpected ways and have moved me to investigate the brain/ language connection.

At a cutting-edge rehab facility, my brain-injured client, Amy, has learned to accept the shattered identity that comes with TBI, in order to reconstruct a new self. In concert with her rehab program, my job is to help her stitch together, on the page, a personal narrative of her past and present while restoring the creative relationship she has enjoyed with language all her life. With Amy, I may be re-building skills from the ruins, but with my students, I feel like I’m building from scratch.

I am alarmed by the way language is being taught—or not—to a large segment of our youthful population, those who most desperately need a voice. I’m stunned that, thrust into an academic path for their economic survival, many students today have no appreciation for the marvelous way we create meaning with words, much less a basic understanding of the mechanics that make it possible. My students find it seriously challenging, even threatening, to listen, to set aside their inner voices (not to mention their cell phones), to objectify, and to entertain new ideas and different realities. Their language skills simply do not support it.

Even students who say they love to write cling to a personal, first-person approach. Once they’ve expressed themselves, they’re done. Revision only confronts them with humiliating errors. When it’s “all about me,” the world is very small. I find this disturbing in an era when social progress so critically depends on world citizenship. Unsurprisingly, there are serious issues with reading for comprehension. Any text, from literature to instructions for their own work, is skimmed without engaging the evaluative processes. This weakness carries over into writing and revising. Students do not attend critically as they write and simply do not grasp any need for editing and review. The word grasp has nothing to do with intelligence; it implies muscle and the desire to embrace and to own your work.

Language is the ability to transform consciousness, thought, into words—abstractions. Language is the way words are recognized, visually or aurally, and the way words are organized, logically, to create meaning—syntax. If language is to be shared, there must be agreement about how words relate to one another syntactically. And indeed, to develop at all, language must be shared. This points to the inherently social characteristic of language. Language connects us. Language makes us human.

My acquaintance’s 2 1/2-year-old daughter stood beside me as I spread peanut butter on bread. “I do it,” she chirped.

This became my grammar lesson for a decade.

“Subject, verb, complete thought: it is a more important developmental milestone than your child’s first step! You do it. We all do it. It is our evolutionary legacy—and it is not rocket science.”

Impossible—that I would ever hear myself say this in a classroom— struggling to engage young mothers with day jobs, imploring them to read to their children because it will benefit them both. I firmly believe it is never too late to improve the neural structures that support this. My work with Amy substantiates it.

Higher levels of consciousness, unique to humans, require neural structures that permit us not just to feel, but to know that we are We cannot be fully conscious, fully aware, fully ourselves without words— without language! feeling, and what the feeling is. We observe our own experience, both internal and environmental, while we are experiencing it. Humans are aware of being aware. For my client Amy, damage to the area of the brain responsible for this rendered her unaware that she was unaware—of her injury. Her path to recovery depended on re-wiring that awareness to reconstruct her sense of self. She did it!

In The Brain and the Inner World, Solms and Turnbull observe: “Mainly language-based mechanisms are required to turn experience into awareness of experience,” adding that sensory and emotional experience must be “recoded” into words in order for awareness to become conscious (Solms & Turnbull, 2002, p. 85). Now, I begin to understand why the work I do with Amy is therapeutic and why the work I do with my students is so urgent.

We cannot be fully conscious, fully aware, fully ourselves without words—without language! Thus, to the extent that language is limited, so is the self. Anything that messes with language messes with us. Oh, boy! Do I care about this! I can envision the possibility of marching to the nation’s capital in a pink hat to protest: Language is who we are! Language matters!

Presenting at a conference recently, I heard echoes of my concern in the keynote address. My colleagues are making connections between deficits in language and critical thinking we see in our students and the sorry state of our antagonized and polarized nation. Poor concentration affects listening, which in turn supports isolation and egocentrism. Not listening leads people to talk over one another and to the adversarial tone that increasingly poisons our private and public conversation. When emotions run high, grammar—along with the logical organization of thought—goes down the tube. And, that’s not the end of it. Bad logic puts the brain off balance, increasing the sense of both internal and external threat, and raising the emotional stakes. We hear an awful lot of empty noise—with no words to make sense of the fearful, existential stew.

We all know rich, beautiful, truthful language when we see or hear it. I suspect that the deterioration of language I’ve alluded to—in daily use, in education, and in politics—is apparent to most of us. How careless syntax breeds confusion and conceals falsehood. How fancy jargon and dense prose obscures vital information and excludes people—deliberately. How social media and texting erodes communication and separates people while promising the opposite. I am trying to say that the nuts and bolts of language matter, not just in the classroom or in a rehab situation such as Amy’s. I’m suggesting that we are witnessing a systemic assault on language that should prompt us all to consider its protection as urgently as we do the issue of global warming. And, while I began to develop my own writing “chops” in college, I certainly never thought it possible that I would one day lose sleep over that.

Lynn McCann ’58 recently retired from teaching but continues to work with her client, Amy. This year she hopes to complete and publish a book of short stories and personal reflections entitled Latebloom.