Thoughts and Words

How do thoughts and words interact? Can we even have thoughts without words? Interesting questions indeed. The answers affect children’s learning. So let’s explore them.

Firstly, consider a toddler with few known words. He touches a hot pan. Ouch! Learns not to touch it again: a sensory experience of learning without words. As learning develops, sensory experiences and words interact. The toddler has experienced a thought – the sense of touch has sent a message to the brain – not to touch the hot thing again. But the toddler does not yet have words to describe it. The concepts of ‘hot and burn’, as experiences, are wordless at this stage.

Tarzan must have experienced his solitary life in the jungle without human words. Did he invent his own words to describe his learned experiences? His conceptual interaction with the jungle environment, and its non-human inhabitants, informed his learning and enabled him to survive.

What about other concepts? Words enable us to form concepts of the world around and beyond us, including what we cannot directly experience: the moon, for example. We cannot touch it. Sometimes we see it – from a great distance. Our concept of the moon is formed only from words – a planet, in space, without water…and so on. Words enable us to describe many such concepts – without needing to experience them.

Two contrasting ideas of learning – with and without words. Many years ago, while studying language for a degree, I came across Vygotsky. He posed a question that I found fascinating: Can we think without language? How do thoughts and word interact? A thought is just a thought. We cannot control our thoughts. When thoughts first enter our head and we think about them – are they with or without words? Are the thoughts already labelled by the words as they arrive into the brain? A chicken or egg question?

Is the activity of ‘thinking’ what we do with our initial thoughts? Our initial thoughts may represent ideas. To manipulate these initial ideas and develop them into other forms of thought – we need words. Words toss the ideas around and enable us to explore their validity. Without words – a mere thought cannot progress to anything more. Words are surely tools for the manipulation of our thoughts.

Vygotsky posed the question – Can we think without language? The answer is no, at least not to any reasonable extent. The ability to use logical reasoning and to develop as rational human beings depends on language. Indeed – it is what differentiates us from the animal world.

So what, you may say! What is my point? It is simply this. Language is the pivot around which real, significant and deeper learning happens, in school and as adults. The school curriculum emphasises ‘deeper learning’ as the ability to delve way down below the surface (think icebergs!) of concepts and turn them inside out in order to understand and apply them to the real world. Think of the Rubik cube. How does it operate from inside?

Indeed, as I write this, we are in the pandemic lockdown. We have a new threat that needs the best brains, with the best language, to apply what we know to solve this new problem. My message: that language as vocabulary, and as communication through effective listening and speaking, must form the foundation of schooling. Without spoken language – there is no written language. Without spoken language – there is no rational thought. Thoughts need words.

More ideas next week. Meanwhile all you need to know is out there in my books for parents. Start by finding out WHAT your child learns and HOW. My books will help – Support Your Child with SEND (Book 1) and at successive Key Stages (Books 2 to 4), by Sylvia Edwards, all available from Lulu in printed form, and from Amazon. Visit my website: Parents: Help YOUR child succeed.

Good luck.

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