Barb's Blog

You Don't Say

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal article by researcher Lera Boroditsky demonstrates that language profoundly influences the way we see the world.  The author surveys research on language use and asserts “All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express.  The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.”  She provides several examples:

Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.

Some indigenous tribes say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right, and as a consequence have great spatial orientation.

The Piraha, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.

In one study, Spanish and Japanese speakers couldn't remember the agents of accidental events as adeptly as English speakers could. Why? In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped: "The vase broke," or "the vase was broken," rather than "John broke the vase." 

This brings to mind the significance of what we say and how we say it in certain cultural traditions.  The Jewish tradition forbids lashon hara, improper speech.*  There are several categories of lashon hara.  Obviously calling people names and telling lies are considered wrong.  But you also should not say negative things about someone even if they are true.  You are prohibited from insinuating something – even if it is a vague something.  And you should not deceive a person, even though no harm is done by the deception.  Lashon hara is a serious offense - some say as serious as murder -because the damage it can inflict can be so wide spread and long lasting.  It has been said that lashon hara kills three: the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told. 

The story is told of a man who told a series of lies about someone.  He later felt guilty about it and asked his rabbi what he could do to make up for it.  The rabbi told him to take a pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the wind.  The man did as requested, and came back to the rabbi.  “Have I been forgiven?” he asked.  The rabbi instructed him “Now you must go and gather up all the feathers that have been scattered.”  Improper words are like feathers spread on the wind – you cannot bring them back.       

The Buddhist tradition is similar to the Jewish tradition when it comes to speech.  Using “right speech” is to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully.  It is to refrain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others.  One should also abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others and idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth.  This means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.

I wonder how we could change ourselves and our culture if our language was rooted in these precepts.  Imagine how our thinking might change if we only used words based in truth, gentleness, and necessity. 

The author of the article concludes:

"Language is a uniquely human gift. When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature. As we uncover how languages and their speakers differ from one another, we discover that human natures too can differ dramatically, depending on the languages we speak."

How can we use language to change our human nature for the better? 

*Reference to speech in this blog includes signing, writing, and any other expression of thought.

Copyright 2010.  Do not reproduce without permission.

Standing at the Table of History

In my years of being involved with the educational policy I have been struck time and time again about how at its core, this field is not about laws regulations, rules, or guidelines.  It is not about certifications and licenses.  It is not about following procedures or protocols.  It is about responding to the depth of human experience.

This summer I had the honor of attending the 21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf in Vancouver, Canada.  History was made during this meeting.

In 1880, at the ICED conference held in Milan, Italy, delegates voted to abandon the use of sign language in the education of deaf children.  From that day forward the predominant mode of communication in deaf students’ classrooms was spoken language.  

The harm this decision did to the education of deaf students over the years is incalculable.  Hour after hour students sat in speech therapy sessions, blowing feathers, holding their hands to their neck, shaping their mouths into awkward positions, trying to make the sounds of speech.  Year after year deaf students sat in classes trying to glean bits of information from the lips of teachers whose words they could not hear.  Generation after generation deaf students were denied the education and life opportunities afforded their hearing peers.   

In 1960 Dr. Bill Stokoe published his pioneering research, “Sign Language Structure,” the first monograph to demonstrate that the signs deaf people use constitute a full language, American Sign Language (ASL).  Additional research, changes in societal attitudes, and higher expectations in education made it possible to again use sign language openly with deaf children.  Although today not all deaf children have access to fluent ASL users in their school and social environments – in fact, most do not – deaf schools and many local schools support ASL development with their students, and many hearing people value and respect ASL.

But the Milan decision was a wound that had not yet healed. 

In the months leading up to ICED 2010, the British Columbia Deaf Community and others called upon the ICED 2010 Organizing Committee to address the Milan decision.  The Organizing Committee was open to the concerns of the Deaf Community, and a dialogue began.  This resulted in a joint statement titled “A New Era of Deaf Participation and Collaboration.”  Among other things the signatories:

Reject all resolutions passed at the ICED Milan Congress in 1880 that denied the inclusion of sign languages in educational programs for Deaf students;

Acknowledge and sincerely regret the detrimental effects of the Milan conference; and

Call upon all Nations of the world to remember history and ensure that educational programs accept and respect all languages and all forms of communication.

A book was available for ICED attendees to sign indicating their support for the statement.  Over the course of the meeting nearly 600 of the 700 attendees signed it.  At the end of the conference Markku Jokinen, president of the World Foundation of the Deaf, accepted the book.  Markku’s address to the audience was humble and kind, hopeful and conciliatory.  He stressed the importance of beginning this new era in partnership, emphasizing forgiveness and collaboration.  Markku will collect additional signatures at the 16th Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf in Durban, South Africa in 2011.  The book will later go to the next ICED in Patras, Greece in 2015.  

Standing in the crowd of hundreds, I felt as though I was looking over a huge table, and the people already at the table were moving over and scrunching a little closer together to let more people in.  And maybe they were a little embarrassed and sorry things took so long.  But the people joining the table were gracious and smiling and shaking hands and saying, “So, let’s do this together from now on, okay?”

Copyright 2010.  Do not reproduce without permissi

© Barbara Raimondo 2015