Saturday, November 29, 2008

Seeds Of Change

Kia ora tātou – Hello Everyone
A mobile phone projecting the word CHANGE
When is a poem not a poem
And verse runs into prose?
When is a home not a home
And strife contemptuous grows?
The Differential Calculus
Defines the least derivative
Of increments too small for us
In subtle terms definitive,
But the myriad seeds of change that fall
By each gradation's measure
Differentiate the large from tall,
The enjoyment from the pleasure;
If this sonnet is not proved true,
I've never judged, nor yet have you.

Kim Cofino is a twenty-first century literacy specialist at the International School Bangkok in Thailand. In her post What Is Literacy, she speaks of attempts to understand the “shift in literacy, especially considering that many people still believe that literacy is solely being able to read and write in printed form.”

She cites the Becta reports and the McArthur Report as concrete research-based examples “that would help people outside the educational technology field better understand this shift.” She also asks for our thoughts on the concept of literacy.

I put a comment against her post:

We go round in circles with this today - but one could say, 'twas ever thus.

When I was taught (English) literacy in the 60s, we had a teacher who honestly believed that if a word was not to be found in the dictionary, it didn't exist. Many English teachers (of the old school) believed this.

I was not very well educated in those days (that's why I was at school) but even I could figure that the words in the dictionary weren't always like that - we were taught this in the English class! Shakespeare, for instance, used a strange diction and some strange words. My question was, 'whatever happened to those?'

Today we have all sorts of problems with examination authorities who eschew mobile text language, especially in English examinations. And I wonder.

Recently I re-read The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson and was again delighted to find reference to a book that I'd read, 40 years ago, by Simeon Potter, Our Language (first published in 1950).

In both books the message was clear: language, and the ways that it is communicated, are living things. They react sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, like swarms of bees, always on the move.

Literacy clearly has an association with symbolism. I think it is a far cry to say that literacy is only to do with the power of speech or the skills associated with that. Yet, without speech, the symbolism of 'literature', whether it is Shakespeare's script, or a text message using the symbols of that medium, would have no relevance.

Sign language, no less a language than any other, also has its base in symbolism - involving signs and actions. But it is really more like the spoken language, for it is not designed to represent the written words and often simply does not follow those.

Literacy is bound to the spoken language AND the written symbolisms that represent the language. A person who is incapable of writing, because of some physical disability, is no less literate than someone who is not disabled but who does not know how to write. But you would agree that there may be a difference. For instance, the able person who does not know how to write may not be able to read either. Not necessarily the person with the disability who cannot write.

So literacy can have many facets. We need to define these more explicitly. I gather that the visions we may have of these definitions change as much as language does.

It eventually comes down to opinion, either that of the individual or of the authorities. And to have any acceptable measure of literacy, by whatever means it is metered, requires standards.

Unfortunately, this is where it becomes set in a way that doesn't really fit the nature of language. So standards must be continually revised to meet the needs of society and its understanding of literacy.

Which brings us back to the question. My gut feeling is that we are chasing a moving spot of light. As quickly as we have defined where it is and mapped its shape, it has moved on.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

from Edward Fitzgerald's 'Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam'.

Haere rā – Farewell


Anonymous said...

Yes but why? Has the 21st century brought us change that is too fast to chase? Seems that continually changing standards defy the definition of standards.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Janet!

I believe that what you have said here is right: that the 21st century has brought us change that's too fast to chase. Check out Are We There Yet?

I agree that standards that are continually changing defy the definition of standards. Some of this is stupid.

But, y'know, standards have ALWAYS been brought up-to-date through history. Fact.

This applies especially to scientific standards as well as engineering standards. But printing standards and the like have also borne their fair share of change, and with some reason.

The standard is really a model. All models that depict ideas, concepts (or standards) are modified to fit developments in how we view these and the changes incurred by this. With Science the development is in our ever-changing understanding of how things are.

BUT, there is a difference between a need for a change in a standard and a change that's brought about to (try to) change the norm. The latter is like legislation to change the way we speak or write. It's dumb, and unlikely to do anything other than define a (dumb) standard.

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

I think there has always been change in English, just not documented as it is today.

If you look at Vulgar Latin, it is very similar to what is happening to English today. When governments and other entities begin to impose "rules" on a language, rather than explaining the language as it evolves, it becomes useless. This is what has happened to French.

However, as Kim points out, literacy is more than the language. Governments and certain societies want to control language, but it has a deeper goal. What they want to control is the knowledge, the means of communication, and the structures that are behind the language, imposing their ideas through the restriction of language.

In fact, though, language, like ideas, are very difficult to control. If the language does not keep up with the ideas, then other languages and means of expression will take over. Thus, the demise of vulgar Latin.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Virginia,

Thanks for confirming what I have always believed since I was at school: that language changes - despite the dictionaries.

Of course, one doesn't need to make a formal study of language to find this out. Nor does one have to be a language scholar to have an opinion on it, I'm happy to say.

Anachronistic tongues

I am aware, for instance, that the Scottish dialect - namely Fife - that I knew in 1974 is what I carry with me here in New Zealand. I left Scotland in 1974 and have only ever returned for brief visits.

I am a time capsule of how the dialect was in Fife at the time I left. Fife dialect, though it has changed only slightly since then, has nevertheless moved on. My version of it is anachronistic to the tune of 34 years.

What I have always found interesting are the attempts made to somehow block acceptance of the development of language, even over a relatively short period.

Control of knowledge through language

I am also interested in what you say about attempts to control knowledge through the control of language. Could you give some current examples of this Virginia? I'd be very interested in what you have to say about that.

My own experience of what I think this could be is the doublespeak often heard in education circles - terms that either have a hollow meaning in the context they're being used or have clearly got some vague undefined meaning, to which can be assigned any number of interpretations.

Any attempt to seek elucidation about the precise meaning of these particular terms when they are used in this way is frequently met with more doublespeak.

Words that I've experimented with in (e)learning circles, and found to be often bound in such doublespeak, for instance, are:

(believe it or not)
digital learning object

Though these terms can be easily Googled (or found well defined in Wikipedia) many of them take on mysteriously vague and nebulous meanings when heard in conversation.

And I wonder if this is a niche attempt to either avoid defining the terms, or even avoiding further specific conversation related to their meaning - possibly an attempt to cover up ignorance of any in-depth understanding or real knowledge of the context of the terms. I find this strange, especially when it occurs among educated people, but I come across it frequently.

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

It took a while to come up with an example in English, as there is not a central authority telling us what is allowed or not (like in French). However, there are "stylist" that insist that one form of English is superior to another.

In the US, we are taught not to use the passive voice. This is a real problem with my foreign students that are trying to be polite. In essence, by making the speaker (or writer) use an active voice, you are forcing them to identify an enactor, someone to blame. This is very embedded in the American culture and changes a person's understanding of where knowledge is coming from (there is someone creating actions and knowledge--it doesn't just appear).

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia.

Thanks for this. Interesting that the passive voice is often said to be more difficult for the reader to follow. Also that the active voice is more engaging.

Writing for learning advises that the active voice, being more direct, is more likely to engage the learner. But, as you say, it may clash with cultural aspects.

Catchya later

Anonymous said...

So glad that post got you thinking, and flattered that you have made your own post about it here :)

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai Kim!

As you can read here, your post has also initiated other conversations in the blogosphere.

Thank you for the thinking fodder, Kim!

Haere rā!