Tuesday, May 05, 2009
The Power of Language
Here are my current opening lines to a new class as I introduce myself: "Let me make this very simple for you. Words are power. The more words you know and can use, define, understand, the more power you will have as a human being. Hear me when I say this. The more language you know, the more likely it is that no one can get it over on you. This is the most practical reason I can offer as to why you want to listen to me speak to you about poetry."
I keep coming across little bits of research, information about brain function and language/reading, details about the usage of words, reading comprehension statistics and theories, all sorts of tidbits that occupy countless tiny files in the computer that is my brain. It is estimated that the English language has anywhere between 450,000 and 750,000 words and word forms, dependent on which tally is cited. Some time last year, I heard that the average American's daily usage of that repository of language is 168. This is appalling. Add to that our propensity for abbreviating everything to acronyms and trademarked names and we are pitifully lacking in scope. We are satisfied with mediocrity when it comes to communication and expression.
The other side of the language factor is that, dependent upon socio-economic class, a child will have heard somewhere between 350,000 and 3 million words by the time he or she is registered for kindergarten. Huge spread but still, a child is predisposed to language in some form. What are we offering students in options?
I cringe every time I hear the phrase "her and I went..." but, unfortunately, I hear it all the time and not just from students. I can sit in an English Department office with colleagues and hear this painful grammatical construction. I hear it from professionals in the fields of law, human services, medicine. I hear it on television and on the radio. It freaks me out.
There are some basics for which many people no longer have any pride: spelling, grammar, even good penmanship. These are not stressed in ways that compel students to invest their effort and time in learning and displaying quality skills. Additionally, all around them are examples that negate such interest or pride. The fast food national mentality of immediate gratification and the fastest track to receive it is proving to be a critical flaw in our society that I believe is helping to bleed us dry.
During the presidential election, I was astounded as some criticized Barack Obama for being a skilled orator. It became an insult to be an expert in rhetoric! WHAT?! I, for one, am so relieved to be able to sit in front of the television for a press conference and hear the beauty and power of language spoken with confidence and pride. Not only that but I have a president who challenges me to learn new words every time he speaks as well or, at least, doublecheck that I know the definition and understand the connotation of the vocabulary presented to me. At last, someone who is raising the bar and expecting that the American populace is intelligent enough to keep up, to understand. How refreshing! What a relief.
I have also heard poets state that they are not going to use certain words in poems because no one will know what they are anymore. We forsake language when we are in the business of language to create worlds, environments. What will we be doing in the future? Single syllable word construction of haikus for bottle tops of the newest beverage sensation?
Language is power. The dictionary is not a doorstop. It is a weapon as well as a tool. It combats ignorance, deception, and indifference. I hope to infect at least one student in every class I facilitate with the curiosity to break the inertia and lift the book, open the cover, and check a word simply because it was there and it was a mystery.