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Are We Slaves to Language?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how hearing, seeing, or speaking a phrase regularly can get someone to really believe it after a while.  I’ve been listening to Seth Godin’s Linchpin on CD, and after hearing him tell me that I’m creative,  exceptional, and could be a linchpin, I find this attitude emerging in my mind more than before.  It could be just a placebo effect, or confirmation bias– where you see “evidence” of things you expect to see– but maybe not.  In an appearance on The Accidental Creative podcast, Godin gave the advice to write “I’m exceptional” on a post-it and post it [that was neat] at your workplace.   The language with which we surround ourselves may in fact shape our thinking more than we realize.

This article on linguistics and psychology has dramatic implications for teachers.  Deutscher looks at the way language shapes our thinking in profound ways, as in the cases of non-English speakers who  say they  conceptualize objects as masculine or feminine, depending on the “gender” assigned to the word– think back to 9th-grade Spanish here.  English speakers don’t have this opportunity, of course; things are neutral– objects are objects, after all.  But there may be a kinds of richness in thinking that English misses out on– there’s something literary and epic in seeing everything as imbued with a gender, even if it is, most of the time, linguistically arbitrary.

If I’m in a classroom, and I tell kids every day, “You’re all capable of great things,” or “Every one of you is a success in training,” or “You are creative,” could this be the kind of language they need to hear in order to make what I’m saying real?  What about the opposite– if I tell kids “You can’t do that,” “You have to lower your expectations,” or “You’re not going to get anywhere that way,” how long until these prophecies fulfill themselves?

“Can’t” is a word that invites a lot of debate.  There are those in the “can’t-means-won’t” camp, and those that find solace in the pragmatic, “There are some things he can’t do, and that’s ok.  He doesn’t have to be good at everything.”    The difference for teachers is that we’re not in the business of limiting abilities.  We’re in the business of making things happen, not advising what we don’t think is going to happen.  If a student wants to get into a college that we think is way beyond his ability level, telling him he won’t get in takes him one step further to your being right, except for the exceptionally-resilient kids who take comments like that as fuel for their determination– but they’re exceptional, no post-it needed.

Of course, it does no good to mislead students, either.  If my D student wants to get into Harvard, I have two choices:

1) Say “You can’t get into Harvard because you get D’s in school.  If you wanted to go there, why didn’t you study more?”

2) Say, “To get into Harvard you need to have very high academic scores, to start with.  You also need lots of other activities, recommendations, and more.  Where do you stand right now in school?  How can I help you to get those scores to where they need to be for Harvard?”

There’s still a part of me that wants to admit that the first person is probably right.  But that’s not the kind of language I want in my head, because I believe that the language I use to think about things is going to shape who I am, just like the French think of forks as having feminine voices (read the article).  It’s time to use the language we use with ourselves and with our students as a catalyst for a more-productive attitude. Instead of “They can’t ____________,” try “I haven’t yet figured out a way to get them to ____________.”

If this becomes a habit in your mind, think how positive you could become.  I admit that it gives  some kind of cathartic release to be pessimistic sometimes– I like to put on 90s grunge and pretend I’m lonely and hopeless as much as the next guy.  But positive thinking is where innovation comes from, where creativity thrives, and where things get done.  When you use the way language shapes thinking to your advantage,  nothing is impossible, because impossible is just another way of saying “I haven’t yet figured out how to…”

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