What language means

I was listening to Fresh Air with Terri Gross on NPR this morning (the podcast). She was interviewing a consultant that works with politicians and businesses to help them develop and use “words that work” (his book title). He was talking about the difference between climate change and global warming. His point was that climate change was more accurate and less extreme than global warming. He made this same sort of comparison for a number of other politically charged terms (e.g. death tax vs. estate tax, drilling vs. exploring in ANWAR). What I found so ironic is that he is arguing that his language is more true than the other choices. The idea that his ideas are expressed accurately without the bias of value. It is a fundamental of constructivist learning theory that each individual constructs their own understanding. You (as a teacher or a politician) can only introduce things into the environment, not transmit them into another person’s head. This means that when I say death tax it can not possibly mean the same thing to you as it does to someone else. Saying that death tax is more accurate than estate tax is just absurd on the face of it. Each phrase is chosen to make a particular type of argument about the value of the tax. The main goal of language is essentially rhetorical – an attempt to have others see the world as we do. In this way language does not have an absolute meaning, only a meaning grounded in the experiences, context and interpretation of the people speaking and hearing it.

This is the difficulty I have with absolutists of all stripes. The idea that there are right answers in the area of human interactions (like teaching). Malcomb Gladwell (author of Blink and The Tipping Point) has a great talk at TED about this very issue. He manages to make some profound points about the nature of scientific reserach on human behavior while using chunk tomato sauce as a exemplar. Great stuff.

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~ by sbmcdon on January 11, 2007.

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