The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


December 2014

Explaining Language – Installment 1:3

An aspect so often ignored with language is that what works is much more important than how it works. If you have a dinner guest who asks where the silverware is located, you may truthfully reply, ˝In the drawer.˝ This may be technically true, but if there are three drawers, and your guest checks the closest drawer when you meant the farthest drawer, your answer was not as useful as it could have been. Simply put, correspondence to reality is a better goal for language than truth.

This point becomes really pivotal then: anytime someone asks, “What does________ mean?” an answer that includes what people believe will always be closer to reality than an answer that excludes people. For example:

  • What is truth? Truth is a word that people use to describe when almost all people agree on something.
  • What is freedom? Freedom is a word that people use to describe the extent of multiplicity of options an organism generally has.
  • What is genius? Genius is a word that people use to describe when a person creates ideas or things that most people later agree to be valuable.

It’s certainly more concise and better sounding to leave out the part regarding people’s beliefs, which causes people then to go ahead and leave it out. But just realize then that if you do omit the part having to do with people, your definition will be at least a bit farther from reality than the more inclusive definition.

So, on one level language is not very complicated as exemplified by the fact that young children use it very effectively. But, because language can describe anything we want it to, it’s description can become dizzyingly complex. Just consider this example of a “short” list of concepts that are words used only to describe various aspects of language:

languge concept picture

All of these different ways of describing language become extremely problematic when someone attempts to learn about language. It seems overwhelming, to say the least. There are so many people, such as teachers, and lawyers, and philosophers, and salespeople, and on and on, who sense a need to learn about language, but then start coming across these terms, and give up, thinking the task obviously too difficult. A person can learn more about language by learning about all of these areas, but that person doesn’t have to.

The Significance and Implications of Advances in Genetic Testing

I’ve recently re-read this article from October’s Discover magazine, an extremely interesting read concerning genetic influences on developmental delays.  It was interesting enough that I wanted to comment on it here.  Unfortunately, the article is behind a pay wall, so I’ll first summarize a few of the more intriguing points, and then follow up with my comments.

The author, Mark Cohen, a developmental pediatrician, specifically describes comparisons between the developmental problems of a boy with velocardiofacial syndrome (VCF) and another boy with DiGeorge syndrome.  The boy with VCF was brought to Cohen’s clinic at the age of 2½ before the mother knew that he had VCF.  The child had begun demonstrating moderately severe delays with speech, language, and learning generally, and she didn’t know why.  Cohen was able to diagnose the boy’s VCF by using additional medical information that does normally require a trained individual to diagnose.  This diagnosis was later confirmed by genetic testing.  The mother was not only relieved to discover that her son’s problems were not her fault, it was now possible to more adequately devise a future plan of treatment.

This all got Cohen to thinking – and specifically, remembering a boy he’d once treated who had DiGeorge Syndrome, a much more serious disorder that usually presents with multiple medical issues and more severe mental retardation.  He got to thinking about it because both VCF and DiGeorge Syndrome are caused by chromosomal deletions occurring on the exact same chromosome location.  In fact both of these syndromes are referred to as 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, despite that the patterns of abnormalities they present with are often quite different.  The two syndromes have very similar causes, but result in far different outcomes, only because in the severe syndrome slightly more genetic material is missing.  DiGeorge Syndrome has historically been far easier to diagnose however while VCF has not.

The implication here is that there must be countless other cases similar to this first boy’s with now diagnosable genetic conditions, which are going undiagnosed.  Anybody who works in special education knows that some children just respond well to a certain amount of extra help that other children just don’t respond as well to. There are so many children that we just don’t know exactly what’s going on.  Without adequate information, conjecture must often take a more overly predominant role in therapy planning.  Sometimes teachers suspect that the root of a child’s issues are occurring because of that child’s home life, while other times members of the planning team know that something unidentifiable is amiss.  When I was in graduate school many years ago, we were taught the phrase “FLK” for “funny looking kid,” which while definitely not politically correct, at least underscores the issue here.  These were children that everybody suspected had genetic causes to their developmental delays that were just impossible to know for certain.

Times have changed dramatically in our abilities to now figure these things out.  However, in the United States, at least, the cost continues to prohibit.  This New York Times article does a great job of spelling out the issue – basically, companies that perform these tests are extremely vigilant in patenting, reducing competition so that they can charge whatever they want.  These companies do point to what they consider comparably high costs elsewhere, especially Europe, and there are definitely other factors that muddle this, such as overall infrequency of testing, and labor intensiveness, which also work to drive up the costs.  The bottom line, though, is that for people of monetary means, this testing can provide extremely valuable information unavailable to people with less disposable income – and that includes children.  And it seems as though there are solutions that can drive down the cost of genetic testing, such as having governments essentially buy the patent, opening up the market for competition.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out as yet another possible instance (such as the convergence of mass media, campaign finance, U.S. health care, Wall Street, etc.) of one group’s money interests conflicting with what seems to be the greater good.


An excellent post. Ultimately communication should be a rewarding experience. My experience is that ABA can be effective when it’s used as sort of a last resort, and when used along with the intent of phasing it out as soon as possible.

Unstrange Mind

This week, I watched a community implode. I’m not going to talk about that, though, because it was very painful to watch people I love being treated so badly. But a lot of the implosion centered around a topic I do want to talk about. That topic is ABA – Applied Behavior Analysis, a common type of therapy for Autistic children. I watched people fight around in circles, chasing their metaphorical tails. It will take some time and lots of words to unpack this topic, but I hope you will stick with me on this because it’s so important and there is a lot that needs to be understood here.

Here’s the argument in a nutshell. It gets longer, angrier, and much more detailed than this, but I am exhausted just from reading the fighting, so I’m boiling it all down to two statements. And both statements are correct.


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Explaining Language 1:2

Language is a frustratingly complex symbolic system, yet it is effectively used by small children. Language has been thoroughly explained by those with brilliant minds in disparate fields, yet a complete understanding of it remains frustratingly beyond our grasps. It always seems as though just as we reveal something new about language, just as we appear certain to construct some edifice of ultimate linguistic understanding, those damn counterexamples keep cropping up, as if in language as with nothing else, there is this holy grail of scientific system building, yet, almost schizophrenically, there can be nothing scientifically secure. Why is this?

There are several reasons. A big one is that words, or any unit of meaning, do not represent some eternal, scientifically measurable truth. Instead, they represent our beliefs regarding reality. Language is just a lot more subjective than we often realize. As a reflection of our beliefs rather than reality it is itself imprisoned by the subjective constraints of our minds. Thinking of our words and meanings as mere tools can help us avoid conflating them with the objects of the tools.

And then consider the extent to which what everything one person believes intertwines with the belief systems of every other person. Our belief networks are incredibly complicated, creatively elaborate, and elusively impossible to completely understand. Not one person seems to be in complete understanding of every one of his desires, memories, and beliefs. When one person tries to understand those of one other person, the task becomes exponentially more difficult, and then again when trying to understanding the beliefs of groups of others.

I’ve read a lot of language philosophy, much of which I’ve found fascinating. However, a larger part of it seems to muddy the layman’s waters. To me, much of language philosophy seems to be concerned with creating systems to describe how we use language, and then addressing the problems that other philosophers find with those systems. Explanation becomes layered upon other explanation, creating a complicated morass that is practically unrecognizable to people outside of the field. The heated debates usually use argued definitions of such things as reference and sense and scads of linguistic specific jargon to argue over questions, such as: What is meaning? How do words work? How do words refer to objects? These are topics that often seem trivial to outsiders.

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