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Freely Speaking: Random Thoughts on Words

Introduction

Today I want to talk about something that would probably fall into the category of “organic ideas” rather than sustainable ideas. I want to plant a seed of thoughts by talking about something we seem to take for granted every day: Words. That was the title of the latest Radiolab episode I subscribe to. Now for those of you who don’t know, Radiolab is a radio show on WNYC hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Crowitch with the goal of asking big questions to stimulate the mind to grow. I consider them to be the “This American Life” of Science or better for the lack of any better words. There is also a really nice bonus video which I have embedded below. Anyway, watch the video, and if you find this blog interesting, I highly recommend that you listen to the podcast (, subscribe, and donate to the cause of public radio).


Source: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/

Synopsis

In four acts, this time the show covered what importance words have on us in our daily lives. In the first act, Jad Abumrad interviews Susan Schaler, one of the first women to have learned sign language, about her discovery of a 37-year old deaf man who did not seem to know what language was, and we learn what transformational changes happened to the man as he learns that there is language for the first time in his life.

In the second act, Jad and Robert learn about an experiment in which mice have to find food located on one corner of a rectangular room where all but one wall is painted in the same color, the difficulties they have and implications this has on us humans.

In the next act, Jad and Robert listen in on a TED talk given by Professor Taylor a famous neuroanatomist, who lost her language as a result of a stroke, and then talk to her to learn about the experiences she went through as she regained her language abilities.

In the forth act, Jad and Robert discover what happens when a whole school of deaf children get together to play and learn: They invent their own language, and we learn about the changes that take place there over time.

We are then left with some thoughtful words as Jad and Robert revisit the Susan Schaler trying to learn how it was like for the deaf man before he learned a language.

Reflections

When I listened to this podcast, so many thoughts went through my head because this show seemed to link up so many ideas, I have always taken for granted. In the progress, there were a few simple truths I rediscovered for myself.

Where to start?

“Language is the key that opens door to success”, my dad always said. It’s true. Languages do not only transmit information. But the thinking of a culture is embedded in language. Hence learning different languages not only allows one to communicate information to another person, but can facilitate the learning of cultural values, and cultural thinking. It is true that languages change over time because individuals make changes to it in response to changes in the environment. But it is equally true that the changes in language represent changes in the collective mind. I was reminded of this when listening to how the deaf Nicaraguan children were able to come up with their own language, and how this language got refined within just one generation, allowing children of the younger generation to engage in more complex thought than their older brethren. Knowing one language will allow a person to think in one system. I am starting to see why it is so important to learn many different languages early on. Learning different languages enables the brain to think in different ways making it more flexible. Flexibility of course is important for surviving challenging situations.

But just as words and languages are one mode of thinking, Professor Taylor touched on something I think my Tai Chi sifu is trying to teach in his formless Tai Chi class. In meditation, one tries to calm the mind and naturally let the brain chatter disappear. Rather than thinking (which in my mind always involves words) about how to move in Tai Chi, he promotes experiencing the movements. It’s hard to explain in words, but the best I can describe this as is sensing each movement and being aware of them and their directions. My sifu always said that Western culture thinks too much with the right hemisphere by which he means that it is too reliant on analytical thinking which is often built on concepts and constructs drawn up by words. Although these words are powerful means to transmit information, they are also an intermediate construct to what is. They funnel the brain to think in a certain way – efficiency results from the funneling effect. My sifu has always promoted “more left hemispheric thinking”, more experiencing truths that is very similar to what Professor Taylor now seems to long for. That got me thinking: Can meditating monks induce this state of mind voluntarily? And what are the benefits?

Concerning, the remark that the Nicaraguan kids of the second generation were able to think more about thinking as a result of having several words that describe different thinking processes, I was thinking several things: Apart from words as they appear in spoken and written languages, there are other forms of “words” as well: the musical language, programming language, or mathematical language. In each of these cases, it may be hard to understand concepts in music, programming or math without knowing learning the language first.


On a related note, my sifu has always said: The mind affects the body, and the body affects the mind. This got me thinking: The normal mode is that a tired body breeds negative thoughts. But if the mind also affects the body, what would the effects of surrounding myself with positive language, with people who are positive, and who themselves use positive language be?

There is an old saying I learned about when I started this blog:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

— Frank Outlaw

Thanks to Jad and Robert, I feel that I have gained a new appreciation for this saying and what my dad has always tried to teach me. I now better understand why language opens the door to success. Thank you all!

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