I remind my students many times each year that the essence of language is sound. Language is primarily aural. We read and write graphic representations of sounds that we have learned to connect with meaning.
Here's the culture-endangering dilemma middle school kids and their teachers find themselves in:
Children have learned their native language seemingly without effort—or at least the thousands of hours of trial and error that went into acquiring language isn't remembered. The human brain has a built-in ability to associate sound with meaning. By the time children are ready for formal learning it is assumed that they have acquired oral language. So in primary school the emphasis is on translating their innate language ability into reading and writing. As their oral language skills deepen and become more peer driven, their school work becomes more and more centered on written language. They begin to associate "work" only with reading and written production. "Talking" begins to be something that they can get in trouble for, or that is fraught with danger when they are called on to deliver an answer in class. Many referral forms in middle school have a check box labled "talking" as the reason for the referral. Oral communication with adults becomes formalized and, not rewarding in the same way it was when they were first learning language from their parents, while informal communication with peers remains relaxed and intrinsically rewarding at the same time that it becomes illicit and therefore an exciting part of discovering their sense of volition apart from adults.
Add to this the fact that for many kids the sound of a serious adult voice directed at them means that they are in trouble. Lots of adults just do not engage kids in real conversation. For many kids, if an adult is speaking to them it is to direct them, to tell them what to do and what not to do, or what they have done wrong. The lower the parenting skills—and poor parenting is endemic—the more likely it is that parents' words are not followed up on: there is no action that follows or accompanies the words to give them value and meaning. So often I hear and see parents (who normally do not include children in their conversations) repeating the same words over and over while the child ignores and ignores until, if there really is some parent-oriented compelling reason for the communication, the parent yells at the child—usually accompanied by a threat. Sound familiar? If children know that normally spoken language from adults is either not directed at them, or is something unpleasant that they can avoid by ignoring, they learn to tune adult voices out.
Another aspect of this language breakdown is the fact that increasingly over the last half century or so, young people hear more language from non-interactive, non-personal media such as TV and other electronic media than they do from the real adults around them. This kind of language lacks the social context that demands attention and imparts meaning. It does not really have to be attended to because one is not required to answer back. Media language demands nothing of the hearer. It manipulates the thinking without developing the capacity for the critical judgement required for cogent response. We get consumers of prepackaged meaning instead of communicators.
This media-driven, non-interactive language environment is especially important to evaluate in light of its place in cultural evolution. It is thought by many anthropologists that human language coevolved with basic hunter-gatherer technologies such as fire and cooking that created a surplus of food, making it possible for us to share food in a leisurely fashion, face to face. Language became not just a means to better hunt, gather and survive, but to express our thoughts, memories and abstract ideas. The hearth became the stage upon which the ever increasing complexity of our language facilitated the advancing complexity of our thinking and hence of our arts and technologies and of civilization itself. The cultural importance of breaking bread and the communication that accompanys it cannot be overstated—especially within extended families, clans and tribes, and in the development of the individual young language learners who are the foundation of cultural continuity.
OK, fast forward to the lives of the students in my typical American 7th grade class. I have surveyed over two thousand kids in the past twenty-five years regarding their families' electronic media use. One of the most startling results is that the steadily increasing majority of them no longer experience that face-to-face communication over the shared family meal. They either do not eat together as a family, but eat in front of the TV or computer, or with headphones on, or, if they do eat with an adult or as a family, it is most often with the TV on. They no longer do what people have done for tens of thousands of years: they do not talk with or even hear the talking of the very adults who are the source of their native tongue. A cultural practice of the ages, that is a key to individual language acquisition and may be one of the keys to the development of civilization itself is being abruptly left behind in favor of non-interactive consumer language. This is an unplanned experiment that we are conducting on millions of our children and on our culture in general. I do not want to imply too strongly a value judgment here—maybe this is just the next step in cultural evolution—but it is not really being noticed for the major shift that I believe it to be. I'm just sayin'...
So the kids arrive at middle school and we assume that they are literate. In fact the years of elementary education have worked and most can read and write. We now have the task of re-connecting their newly acquired writing skills with their innate oral/aural language ability. But several things have happened that I don't think are often noticed, but that hamper the process. Most do not think that talking is work. Though fluent in casual peer-speech, they cannot express themselves orally with any articulation about anything complex. ("It was all... ya-know?") They have a hard time explaining what they are thinking, struggle even with simple descriptive language (let alone abstractions and analysis), and really don't know how to take part in a discussion. Their writing is strangely disconnected from their voice, their ears. It is clumsy, and they are not able to read it fluidly—even though they can speak fluently—because their writing is, in a way, another language.
This being a blog, rather than an essay, I'm going to wait on further analysis, or the offering of possible courses of action. I'm not really sure what can be done. I do know that the problem of poorer and poorer language skills on the part of twelve and thirteen year-olds has gotten noticably worse across all demographic lines over the course of my career. What have you noticed? What do you think?