Saturday, June 2, 2012

Speak Well, THINK Well

Last weekend my husband and I went for a drive. We followed the directions given to us and started out just fine - heading east. But the road took us around several bends, up a hill or two and through a tunnel of overhanging branches and so when we came to a Y in the road we paused (not long enough as it turned out) and checked our notes, which read, “Turn east at the Y.” As I said, we were heading east when we started and now as the road split sharply to our right and sharply to our left, we had no idea which way was east. Well, that is not exactly true. We had an idea, just not the right one (even with a 50-50 chance of choosing correctly.) Eventually we made it to our intended destination but the experience reminded me of a seminar I listened to recently.

A friend of mine, Sandy Glickfeld, heard Stanford cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky speak at a conference a couple weeks ago and had high praise for her presentation. When I heard the subject matter I was intrigued. So I googled Ms. Boroditsky and found a link to “The Long Now Foundation” with her seminar entitled, “How Language Shapes Thought.” It was fascinating. One of the stories she told was about a small Aboriginal community, Pormpuraaw, located in northern Australia, where the people have a great sense of direction (unlike the people in the paragraph above.) She told of asking a five-year old girl in the village to point north, and the child did so, accurately, with no hesitation. That skill was common to the whole community. Ms. Boroditsky made the same request to a group of distinguished scholars at Stanford University and they pointed in all possible directions. That made me feel a little better about our experience at the Y in the road.

The reason for these vastly different abilities, according to Lera Boroditsky, is language. In Pormpurraw, people use direction words such as northeast or southwest instead of the terms left and right. So they might say something like, “Put your name in the northwest corner of your paper, just south of the date.” Of course the students would all need to be facing the same direction for those instructions to work. (This wasn’t one of Ms. Boroditsky’s examples but you get the idea.)

She did say, “in Pormpuraaw one must always stay oriented, just to be able to speak properly.”  No wonder these people had a great sense of direction. But the interesting thing about this story, and others she told, was, as Ms. Boroditsky pointed out, when you teach people a new way to talk, you teach them a new way to think. The Pormuraaw people didn’t just learn the vocabulary for north and south; they developed an intuitive knowledge about where those directions were. In Russia, where they have more than one word for the color blue, they actually perceive the different shades of blue more rapidly than English speakers. And that made me think about some of my students who struggle with their native language. How does this struggle affect their thinking?

Most of my students wouldn’t have the slightest idea where North is on our campus but that knowledge is rarely required of them. They are, however, expected to understand prepositions, multi-meaning words, sequencing words and directions like, “Before you open your book, put your name on your paper in the upper right hand corner.” Some language-delayed kids listening to those directions would be as lost as my husband and I at the Y in the road.

I found Ms. Boroditsky’s seminar fascinating and also very encouraging. If by teaching kids a new way to talk, we are teaching them a new way to think, then speech therapy can have a huge impact on their lives. So too, does children’s literature, which introduces new words, concepts and builds language skills on so many levels.

My hope is to teach my students new vocabulary so when they look at the world around them, they can actually perceive the different shades of blue, understand prepositions so they know where they stand in the world, and give them a strong language foundation so when they come to a “Y” in their path, they’ll be equipped to understand their choices.

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