Roger Scruton: Listening is only the beginning of intelligent speech

Share

Not only is language the most efficient and far-reaching form of communication with others; it is also the primary vehicle of thought, the source of self-consciousness and the means whereby information is stored for future use.

Not only is language the most efficient and far-reaching form of communication with others; it is also the primary vehicle of thought, the source of self-consciousness and the means whereby information is stored for future use.

All subsequent learning depends, to a greater or less extent, on the linguistic competence acquired in the years before study. Hence the most important thing that a child learns in its early years is language, and it is surely the duty of parents to enhance their children's grasp of words in whatever way they can. One way to do this, the Queen's English Society tells us, is to read to our children - not rubbishy sound-bites that are there to accompany cartoon pictures, but sentences that bear the burden of the story.

Reading aloud from such classics as the fairy tales of Andersen and Grimm, the Alice books and Winnie the Pooh, we teach our charges to follow a story without the use of pictures. We augment their vocabulary and - so the Society believes - provide children with the means to communicate more freely and more effectively with others. We use imagination, which all children possess, to introduce thought, which most of them don't.

That sounds to me like so much common sense. There is plenty of research to suggest that children brought up on television suffer from learning disabilities, including dyslexia, hyperactivity and loss of concentration. And children not only love to hear stories but also are inquisitive as to the meaning of unfamiliar words and anxious to grasp the full meaning of the sentences that sound in their ears. The language is adult, but the world is one of make-believe: hence both adults and children enjoy the story, and this is one of the strongest forms of intimacy that can arise between them.

Sam and Lucy Scruton, whose television-free childhood has few moments of light relief, find solace at the end of each day in Wonderland, the Argonauts or Narnia, and there is every sign that - cut off though they are from all communication with their peers - they are increasingly able to follow conversations about the Critique of Pure Reason, the origin of earthquakes and the physical impossibility of Spider- Man. So far so good.

However, it is one thing to acquire a passive knowledge of a language, another thing to use it to express thoughts and feelings of your own. My work as a philosopher obliges me to read German, Greek and Arabic. But I cannot utter a word in any of those tongues. Indeed, they are not tongues for me but written signs, which lie dead on the page and play little part in shaping my mental processes.

To read aloud from the classics to children whose spoken language is derived from children's TV (or worse) is to risk creating the impression that English is really an ancient language, no longer spoken by active human beings but preserved in the archive of knowledge for the use of bookworms and other weirdos. Reading aloud in the classroom can therefore only be a part, and by no means the most important part, of linguistic education.

Children must be encouraged to make up stories for themselves, to use new words in sentences of their own and to give their own versions of the old and intriguing stories. Without the co-operation of parents, this will be hard to achieve. Unless and until parents learn to turn off the telly and try out their own organs of speech, children will remain in the language-free zone which is the normal British living room, and the classroom will be, for them, a place as strange as a hospital, which they visit each day for treatment but with only one real desire - which is not to be cured.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform