Roger Scruton: Listening is only the beginning of intelligent speech


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.

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