Language and Identification

On a recent, totally engrossing Radiolab episode focused on color, Homer’s use of color in “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” illustrated a startling fact: not once in either epic does Homer use the word “blue.” Dawn is rosy-fingered, the sea wine-dark, nothing blue. In fact, they later visit the Himba tribe in Namibia who have no word for blue, who struggle to differentiate a sky blue square from a computer monitor otherwise full of green squares (the official BBC link is here). The Himba people have fully functional color vision, but their brains aren’t seeing blue. Why not?

One hypothesis mentioned in the piece is that a culture must synthesize a color before naming it, and as teachers have been known to say – to name it is to know it. Differentiations of shades, of colors, demand parsing an abstraction. As in deconstructing language or writing, terminology helps apply labels to abstractions, just like blue for the curious deep safety of green-minus-yellow. When students struggle to see what needs improvement in their writing or even in their ideas, language helps. All too often, schools approach writing instruction haphazardly or formulaically, because it is so challenging a task.  I have seen the power of a set of language and common, basic rubrics in action, like those adapted from “The Six Traits.”

Over the past few weeks I have seen students form novel neologisms and contort common words like “flow” into descriptors for what they wish to create in their writing. This is my failure; I should provide a useful rubric for students to practice with, grow comfortable with, and apply to their own writing for personal growth. Once students begin to see distinct zones in their writing for improvement, they can learn independently through playing with their writing. If a student can’t name a fragment or a run-on sentence, she can’t find them, or fix the problem. If a student can label distinct parts of her organizational structure, or identify strategies for improving her sentence fluency, she cannot be stopped from learning and making improvements as she sees fit.

Across the curriculum, if students and teachers share a basic functional vocabulary for writing, we will all see anew, see kernels amidst the chaos, see something hiding right now before our very eyes, obscured by the blindness of our minds. Language can begin to unwind the blindfold. We should let it.

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