Aristotle’s Politics, a treatise on political philosophy, explains that language is the defining feature of humanity with the old dictum “and of all the animals, only man has speech.” Unlike the other creatures in the world, man possesses the power of reason and the ability to speak; he is a language animal. As a unique and special creation of God, man possesses a language capacity that no other animal has, and this capacity sets him apart from the rest of the animal kingdom—only man bears the imago dei, the image of God. A person’s growth in language is intertwined with intellectual progress. The German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, patron saint of many linguists, suggests that “absolutely nothing is so important for a nation’s culture as its language.” Certainly, every eloquent poet, logophile, logodaedalus, and wordsmith would agree with Humboldt, but would every parent, teacher, and school administrator? Of course, no one advocates for bumbling, inarticulate students—even progressive schools agree on that. But given the modern trend in education to move away from the language-intensive liberal arts and towards skills-intensive STEM programs, the nature of language and its place in education demand a thoughtful discussion.
In his book The Language Animal, Charles Taylor traces the history and development of two opposing views of human language. These two views have radically different perspectives on humanity and they contend for ascendancy in the marketplace of ideas. Using the helpful work of Humboldt and Taylor, let me define these two views and explain how they affect our understanding of language, education, and human flourishing.
Taylor calls this first view the “descriptive view” of language. Simply put, in the descriptive view, language becomes an instrument for defining objects, encoding thoughts, and communicating about the world. Language represents things in the world, and words and sentences refer to things in the world like “sugar,” “spice,” and other nice things. The thinking and knowing part of a person (the mind) uses language as a container. Ideas about the world that exist in the mind are placed into the container of language and delivered to others. This is also called the “courier” theory of language, where words and sentences carry thoughts to others. So language represents human thinking, but human thinking always precedes language in the descriptive view. If language represents human thinking, language must provide an accurate representation of the world and human thought, and only literal, scientific language will result in true and justified knowledge.
In the descriptive view, metaphor, figurative language, and tropes add nothing to the empirical description of the world. They should be avoided and used only sparingly. For someone who holds this view, like John Locke, all figurative language, “where truth and knowledge are concerned, cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the language or person that makes use of them” (“Essay Concerning Human Understanding” 2:147). Locke desired a clear linguistic system for objective reasoning. For Locke and his followers, metaphors and tropes are ornamental and fail to communicate truth; language is utilitarian—a tool used to describe but never create. Schools that have unknowingly adopted this view turn myopically towards STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and math), and why shouldn’t they? They understand language to be a tool of scientific positivism. The descriptive view of language buys the lie that the meaning of life is found in the hard sciences.
In the second view, language makes possible new ways of understanding, new ways of perceiving and living. Taylor calls this view of language “expressive” or “constitutive.” The capacity of language extends far beyond its mere capacity for description. Language creates. And it creates more than novel descriptions—language actually plays a significant role in shaping the very thoughts it purports to express. As Humboldt explains, “The interdependence of word and idea shows clearly that languages are not actually means of representing a truth already known, but rather of discovering the previously unknown.” Through expression, ideas and thoughts are developed and discovered. Writing, reading, and language learning become an avenue to new and better thinking. Our thoughts become more lucid, cogent, sober, articulate, prudent, and sensible as we grow in our vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. In the descriptive view, human thinking precedes language, but in the expressive view, language shapes, refines, and influences thinking. And if language actually shapes human understanding, then a student’s growth in language is of great import to education.
Every reader has felt the expressive power of language. If at times we don’t understand what hope feels like, Emily Dickinson explains: “Hope is the thing with feathers/That Perches in the soul,/And sings the tune without the words,/And never stops at all.” And when I might have a vague and hazy feeling of dissatisfaction, the words of Edgar Allan Poe clarify and articulate my otherwise unarticulated and unclarified soul:
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep
When a person grows in his ability to articulate, he creates a path towards new understanding. Language enables us to see “reflexively” the things previously present but unarticulated. Reflexively we come to see that hope feels a lot like a bird that sings a sweet tune to our heart; we come to understand despondency as the cold and misty clash of dark ocean waves—waves that come, take, and leave. Language creates these new existential possibilities. And as a person acquires new words, expressions, and ways of speaking, he also develops a deeper awareness of himself and the world—articulation is key.
Language animates a way of seeing and being in the world. By expressing his thoughts in poetic language, new thoughts come to him. Through expressing his feelings, he comes to have new and transformed feelings. When he learns new ways to communicate, he has more sophisticated feelings and more self-aware feelings. Humboldt, the German Romantic, believed that inside every person is a drive “to couple everything felt by the soul with a sound.” A poet feels this yearning for articulation acutely, but so does every man, woman, and child. Language, for some, exists as only a tool, a thrall in the service of empirical description. Language rebels against these chains; it refuses all such limitations. To see, understand, and perceive—language makes these possible.