Listening To Learners

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Wittgenstein, Tractatus

I have watched topologists, knowing no syllable of each other's language, working effectively together at a blackboard in the silent speech common to their craft.
George Steiner, The Retreat From The Word

"Math is easy" I said to a room full of colleagues and managers during a five minute presentation on what happens in class. The comment drew some skeptical chuckles. Apparently, not everyone agreed.

What I meant was mathematics are comparatively easy.

Compared to what? To this....

I had a chance to catch up with a learner. "You passed one of the GED tests," I remembered. "Tell me again which one it was?"

"The poetry one."

"The GED Reading test, right."

"I remembered what you said about looking for what words mean other things not being said."

Well, I was remembering this, and feeling entirely smug. But I was also wondering at her identification of it as "the Poetry test" when poetry probably made up less than one fifth of the content.

Why do learners choose the words they do? How do they make sense of our word choices? What do learners mean when they say things? What does anyone mean? And how are we to know?

I grew up into a strong vocabulary - spoken and written - and a neat and orderly naive and artificial view of what language means. I understood double-meanings, and laughed along with the explanation Humpty-Dumpty gave of language to Alice-through-the-looking-glass.

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master– that’s all.'
But, at the end of the day, I always felt confident that words meant what they meant, named what they named, and nothing more.

Nowadays, I'm sometimes struck dumb with uncertainty.

That same day, I was catching up with another returning learner.

"How do you feel about your reading?" I asked.

"Pretty good. Well, sometimes I don't know how to spell things."

"Your reading, though...."

"Yeah. My spelling isn't great."

"Why do you say 'spelling' when you talk about reading?"

"Well, you can't read a word if you can't spell it, right?"

"Okay. I see what you mean."

Thankfully, I had sense enough not to lecture her about the difference between "reading vocabulary" and "writing vocabulary" or anything like that. It was on my tongue to do so, to pull out that false but orderly artifact that pretends our four vocabularies move from large to small:

words I hear with understanding
words I speak with understanding
words I read with understanding
words I write with understanding

What saved me was an earlier reflection on people using the term "spelling" where I would have said "writing" or something. I'm coming to understand that not everybody thinks this or that word means what I think it means even in the case of remarkably common words.


The wonder is that we can talk at all.

So, yeah. Math is easy.

Explaining why it's easy, even to one's peers, can be complicated beyond calculation.

Slightly relevant link to Pink Floyd's "Keep Talking" on Youtube. :P

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