General Semantics and Emergent Language Acquisition Instruction

By Brooks, Jeffrey S. | et Cetera, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

General Semantics and Emergent Language Acquisition Instruction


Brooks, Jeffrey S., et Cetera


MUCH OF GENERAL SEMANTICS is concerned with un-learning indoctrinated psycholinguistic structures and processes. Being a student and fledgling researcher interested in literacy and language acquisition, I feel compelled to offer (or at least explore) an alternative vision of emergent language acquisition that can compete with or augment existing methodologies. American K-12 teacher preparation programs generally endorse one of two dominant strategies for teaching young students to read and write: the Phonics approach and the so-called Whole Language method.

When teaching a student through Phonics, the teacher presents a series of exercises that are carefully formulated to increasingly broaden the student's ability to effectively reproduce certain sounds. The student is then instructed in methods for combining the sounds into phonemes, then morphemes, and eventually into coherent words, phrases, and sentences that are used to impart meaning. Phonics is a sequential, and relatively prescriptive approach to teaching reading and writing in which each learned element has a distinct utilitarian purpose. In essence, there is a "right" and "wrong" way of performing every linguistic task.

Whole Language strategies are fundamentally more subjective than their Phonics-based counterparts. The Whole Language teacher allows students to make grammatical, pronunciation-based, and even contextual mistakes without reprimand or correction. Whole Language theory holds that by letting the student engage in free and unchecked interaction with language, they will associate their linguistic experience with positive feedback. This, in turn, will cause students to develop a natural and de-stigmatized interest in language. They will feel successful when interacting with text and will ameliorate problems as their experience allows. Thus, Whole Language students and teachers do not focus on the prescriptive aspects of language that guide Phonics proponents.

Though each method is highly regarded by particular professionals and organizations, I have serious reservations about the effectiveness of either strategy. Phonics programs tend to foster an overly mechanical and artificial use of language. Whole Language practices lead to sloppy and imprecise language that renders a disservice to writer and reader. Further, while these strategies are each capable of producing seemingly positive communicative results (as an enormous body of research suggests), they set the foundation for formulaic and inaccurate linguistic patterns, and by extension thought processes, that the general semanticist abhors.

Rather than implement either of these strategies as a holistic approach, I propose that three distinct principles from Korzybskian general semantics be applied to emergent language acquisition instruction:

1. The principle of non-allness asserts that one can never represent everything about anything. Emergent language teachers would do well to refrain from accepting or advancing statements that amount to gross oversimplification (The map is not the territory);

2. …

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