When we speak or write to each other in the same language, it’s easy to assume that we share the same understandings. Yet we also know that it’s quite possible to 'miss' one another - both as we speak, and when we read what someone else has written. In face-to-face communication, because we are there on the spot, we have a relatively good chance to check the intended meaning. We listen, discuss and ‘read’ body language and tone of voice. These all provide us with the clues we use to reach understanding.
But with writing – on paper or digitally – there’s more potential for misinterpretation. Because writing is permanent and can be read and reread, unintended meanings of messages can easily be made and consolidated in the mind of the reader. Nevertheless, the more clues we have, like who the particular writer is and the history of or background to the communication, the better we are able to respond to one another in writing and communicate successfully.
Leading neuroscientist Chris Frith in his fascinating book Making Up The Mind explains how it works. Language and culture arise from and depend on social sharing. Neither could exist without our ability to create models of reality in our minds – and to share these. We have to do this because we can never directly get inside someone else’s mind: “When I look at a tree in the garden, I don’t have the tree in my mind. What I have in my mind is a model (or representation) of the tree constructed by my brain. This model is built up through a series of guesses and predictions. In the same way, when I am trying to tell you something, I can’t have your idea in my mind, but my brain, again through guesses and predictions, can construct a model (or representation) of your idea in my mind”. Without us even being consciously aware of it, our brains are constantly using the models we create to predict what will happen next as we strive to understand and communicate with others. And all of this relies on our prior knowledge, which we use to confirm or adjust our predictions, depending on positive or negative previous experience. It starts at birth, as we use our senses to explore.
So what might this imply for young children learning to communicate? It must be that richly satisfying and interesting experiences, from life or from storybooks, become the pool of ‘prior knowledge’ to predict from as children talk, read and write. For me, this reinforces the urgency to prioritise conversing and reading abundantly with all children in their mother tongues, which they understand best.
What about you?