Language Preservation

I just finished reading a magazine editor's forecast for online publishing. He predicted that short, snappy sentences would dominate the screen of the future. He was appealing to authors to write "quips" or "quick phrases" for folks who were too busy to read the printed page.

"Online systems respond to the shorter attention span of the American user," he explained. In his opinion, the kind of writing now appearing in print publications is not appropriate online, for "by and large, users won't read long articles, screen after screen, scrolling through a little window on a computer."

Has our literate culture come to that - an information superhighway with no lanes for full expression? Some online publications, like his own weekly news magazine, already tailor material for the new medium: short, punchy bursts of descriptive material, aggressive vocabulary, and "an increased use of emotional words."

I don't deny their purpose: to provide fast facts in a serve 'em up, ready-to-go style. Clips and sound bites have been a part of our culture for years now. We hear them on television, on the radio, and in the movies. Scripts are short, and the action is fast.

And who can deny the need for information today? People want answers to their questions, and they want them at their fingertips. But does it help our thinking - and our ability to question - to have our language served up like French fries? Aren't thoughts and language wedded?

Semanticist S.I. Hayakawa suggested as much in 1941 when, looking at the meaning of language, he asked: "Do the words we utter arise as a result of the thoughts we have, or are the thoughts we have determined by the linguistic systems we have been taught?"

Educators like John Chaffee ("Thinking Critically," 1988) still agree that "the more we examine using language and thinking, the clearer it becomes that these two human activities are so closely related that it is difficult to separate them."

In short, language is a powerful and complex tool for expressing and shaping people's thoughts and feelings. Thinking is the organized and purposeful way we make sense of our world.

After more than a decade studying the two, Mr. Chaffee concluded that "as our thinking becomes clearer and more precise, the words we use will also become clearer and more precise. And as our language improves, so will our thinking."

As a language educator, I worked for years believing what Chaffee had to say. I worked with children who struggled with reading. Most of them fell into the "learning disabled" category. Typically, these students stumbled over vowel combinations whose sounds refused to remain constant even within a sentence. In short, I worked with frustrated learners.

But, I knew that language was more than decoding words. In my search for a better way, I devoted half my instruction to reading aloud good literature. Students would repeat the well-crafted sentences and then respond to my questions, using the author's constructions. Suddenly, they were paying attention to the pause of punctuation, instead of the clock or the bell. They were also thinking. When they talked about the story, they adopted the word structures that went with it. Students, who spoke in three-word sentences in the fall, could, in the spring, link nine or 10 words together using clauses and transitions. Their reading improved, too. These students were achieving greater fluency due to the quality of the writing that they were hearing and repeating and talking about.

It is a paradox that our business communities are begging for students who can think "fluidly" and expansively so they may contribute in a creative manner, yet the vehicles for language in our culture like television, the Internet, and film make little effort to demonstrate sophisticated word structures that support complex thought.

Even the schools fall short, according to read-aloud expert Jim Trelease: "Three-word answers in class or filling in blanks is hardly adequate preparation for business communication - even behind the counter at a 7-Eleven. If you read intelligently but talk unintelligently, you are language-deficient."

There is no denying that online publications have the promise to reach readers and keep them informed. In fact, it's predicted that our children will be heavy online users. Along with "Do you know where your children are?" perhaps the question for the next millennium should be "Do you know if they're fluent?" If thought and language are as entwined as Mr. Hayakawa and Chaffee say they are, we should have plenty of reason to want to answer that question.

* Nancy M. Kendall is an educator and writer living in Maine.

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