“The limits of a child’s language…”

“The limits of a child’s language means the limits of his world.”
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher

Wittgenstein’s quote speaks volumes to me.  I found the quote many years ago and placed it prominently on the cover of my brochure for my private practice that I owned in Norfolk, VA, before moving to the DC area last summer.  The quote now sits on my blog page on my Operation Ready By 3 website.  If I could, I would wear the quote on a sandwich board and stand on the busiest corner in DC, in order to remind people just how important the gift of language is to a child.  More valuable than a Leapster Learning System, battery-powered jeep or Barbie car, vacation to Disney World or the most amazing playset/jungle gym in a sprawling, perfectly manicured backyard, every piece of language you give a child expands his world that much more.  Wittgenstein knew in 1941, when he wrote Philosophical Investigations, and I am thoroughly convinced of it after working with and raising children.

I didn’t know anything about Wittgenstein when I found the quote.  His idea rang true enough that I didn’t need to look any deeper into his philosophy. But, now, as I am working so hard to get all children ready for school by the age of 36 months, I decided it was time to delve into his Philosophical Investigations to see if there were any other pieces that relate to my efforts.  As it turns out, my ideas overlap with his seamlessly, despite the decades between us, and I imagine we would have much to discuss if he were still alive today!

I stumbled upon much of the following in a commentary by Lois Shawver, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst (http://postmoderntherapies.com/word.html).  Her comments are based on Wittgenstein’s concept of a “language game,” which he introduced in his important book, Philosophical Investigations.

In Dr. Shawver’s commentary, she reveals that Wittgenstein believes people are trained to “react” to the words of others.  In this “language game,” as Wittgenstein calls it, people use language to prompt people to do specific things.  Consider the following example from Philosophical Investigations:

“….Let us imagine a language …The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’. A calls them out; –B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call.”

Dr. Shawver tells us that Wittgenstein gives us two different training exercises that can be used with children learning language:  1) the adult pointing to objects and naming them and 2) the adult says the words and the child repeats the words mechanically after the adult.  She emphasizes, however, that “teaching a child how to pronounce a term or name an object does not thereby teach the child how to use the term.”  Wittgenstein reminds us that just because you show someone the king in chess and say “This is the king,” that it “does not tell him the use of the piece–unless he already knows the rules of the game up to this last point.”

Based on this, Dr. Shawver tells us that “even though the exercises of pointing and naming may be useful when learning a language game, such exercises are not enough to explain the acquisition of meaningful language.”  Indeed, we teach children rote responses before they understand the meaning of what they do and say.  Shawver gives us the perfect example of asking a child “How old are you?” and the child “holds up three fingers without knowing that each finger stands for a year – or even what a year is.”  It’s not enough to assume that children are learning language simply because they can understand it or use it in a rote or mechanical fashion.

What Wittgenstein and Shawver both emphasize to us, as parents, educators, and childcare providers, is that we must understand the difference between primitive, or simple, language games such as teaching a child to name or point to a word and full, rich language games that lead to true success as a language user.  Wittgenstein lists just a few in his Philosophical Investigations:

“…Review the multiciplicity of language games in the following examples, and in others:
Giving orders, and obeying them–
Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements– Constructing an object from a description (a drawing)–
Reporting an event–
Speculating about an event–
Forming or teasing a hypothesis–
Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams–
Making up a story; and reading it–
Singing catches–
Guessing riddles–
Making riddles–
Making a joke; telling it–
Solving a problem in practical arithmetic–
Translating from one languge into another–
Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.”

How many kinds of language games are there to teach a child?  “Countless kinds,” says Dr. Shawver.  Of course, I would agree.  There are countless sentences to create with an amazing number of vocabulary words from our own language as well as with vocabulary from another language.  There are new words that are constantly invented or used in a novel way such as “internet” and “twitter.”

Dr. Shawver states that the complexity of language can “often pass unnoticed.” She encourages us to think about the fact that learning a language is more than just learning words, since we must actually learn how to use the language in our ordinary lives.  We would all do well in taking her and Wittgenstein’s advice to teach children about the complexity of language and the vastness of words at his disposal.  In doing so, children will be ready to face the world, which will require it of them daily whether they are in school, on the job or teaching their own children about the power of language and communication.


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