Category Archives: mindfulness

No more child-speak

Recently, I saw something very interesting modelled in an article by E.D. Hirsch, whereby the reader was ‘taught’ a new word. The teaching was entirely through accurate, contextual use of that unfamiliar word. It was sublimely done; to fully grasp the meaning from the first use, the reader would have needed a certain level of familiarity with the knowledge domain of the engineer or scientist. Progressively, the reader was re-exposed to the new word in contexts that required less and less specialist background knowledge. The final use grounded the word in an everyday and familiar context. There was a distinct aggregation of understanding.

The first thing that struck me was that in a truly naturalistic model, exposure to unfamiliar words rarely happens in such a structured way. So I tried to forget what I had just learned, and set about reading the sentences in reverse order. My sense was that even in the most familiar of the contexts, my understanding would have been incomplete. In other words, complete understanding was enhanced by exposure to the word in the less familiar contexts.

This strikes me as being rather similar to the way that we construct jigsaws in the real world. Rather than patiently building it up row by row, jigsaws build slowly, coalescing around multiple nuclei, with edges developing gradually to frame and define positions for these nuclei. Some pieces are harder to place than others, often pieces are found as much by chance as deliberate action. Assuming all the pieces are in the box, it should be possible to complete the jigsaw.

No metaphor is perfect, but I quite liked the overall fit of this one, because it presupposes that the component pieces are made available. More simply, if some unkind person were to remove and hide some of the pieces, completing the jigsaw becomes impossible.

Which is why I haver never approved of child-speak. If children understand the specifics of every word we say to them and every word they encounter in text, we are hiding some of the jigsaw pieces from them. We are actively holding them back. At this point, I’d like to focus on talk and put aside text; reading has its own set of preconditions and challenges.

Most people, most of the time, use a relatively narrow core vocabulary. This serves us fairly well in most circumstances. It also makes it likely that most of what you say, if expressed clearly, will be understood by others who speak the same language. Anyone with children or dogs will perhaps agree that failures of understanding, as often as not, have their roots in failed listening!

The promotion of child-speak, viewed in this context, has unfortunate shades of Orwell’s Newspeak, however well-intentioned the conception or implementation. The negative impact must be felt most keenly by those lacking ‘contextual compensation’ – shorthand for the kids who don’t live in a domain of literacy immersion, and they’re probably quite easy to identify.

Proponents of child-speak also ignore something very important. When we match our words to their spoken vocabulary, we fail to provide additional context for those unfamiliar words they have previously heard. Child speak militates against potential.

This isn’t a call for tautology, nor is it a call for the unnecessary over ornamentation of spoken language. It is a call for us to act with a little more ambition, a little less condescension, and embed challenge in the very words we use. The child who doesn’t understand all of the words they’ve heard always has the option to ask for clarication, but even if they don’t, exposure gives them a fighting chance of understanding it the next time.

What Twitter has taught me

I’m an unapologetic fan of Twitter, with all the zeal of the new convert.

My habit developed under my real name, a rich mix of news, journals, science, music, tech. I’m an eclecticist, and Twitter slowly, but completely supplanted my other social networks.

I made the switch to almost entirely professional use about 2 weeks ago, at the same time that this blog started. This has been a revelation. Finding that there are others, articulating many of my own thoughts, my frustrations. And doing it it more eloquently than I could.

Among the people that I follow are many who represent what I would once have considered the ‘enemy’. However, I have grown to believe that bipartisan approaches along dogmatic political lines do everyone a disservice. My values are firmly based on concepts of fairness, equality of opportunity, but I think the present calls for a dramatic overhaul of how we ‘do’ democracy. I’m learning to accept that there will always be ‘enemies’, but we still have to coexist and the obfusquation that passes for the decision making process is a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

I’m no intereb noob, though. In the old days, I loved a forum flame war as much as the next person. Ultimately, though, forums are generally closed communities. I have come to love Twitter because of the sheer mass of potential – one person tweets and that tweet could end up pretty much anywhere. I get a buzz from that.

Twitter has taught me to approach my words with due caution to impact, but it has also taught me to be less precious about my words. Each tweet is a seed in the wind, that may or may not plant. I have no idea whether the majority of my tweets are even consciously registered. but despite the high wastage (for those of us with ‘normal’ numbers of followers, distinctly not hanging on our every word), the seeds that do land can be pretty high yield.

This post is tagged ‘blather’. I’ve had a very relaxed Friday evening, and I’m feeling fired up and ready to change the world. I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has dropped by for a read over the past couple of weeks. I’m vain enough to be interested in my blog stats, so I know there are people reading, in places as diverse as Britain, Bahrain and Brunei. That’s pretty cool.

Humbly, Iorek


I’m thankful that my partner and children are here with me right now.
I’m thankful that we are warm, safe and dry.
I’m thankful that I was able to prepare and serve my family with warm, wholesome food. Non equine.
I’m thankful that I have a voice and the opportunity to use that voice for good.
I’m thankful for the music of The Roches.
I’m thankful that the view from my window is of fields, trees and sky.
I’m thankful for the purring cat who is lying in such a way as to make typing on a smartphone rather awkward.
I’m thankful for the relentless curiosity of my boys.
I’m thankful that I love, and am loved back.

Mindful Gratitude

Sometimes you read something so powerful, so moving that it touches the deepest recesses of your mind. When the writing resonates so perfectly with one’s own experiences and emotions, it really does feel like a ripple through the fabric of being. Sometimes it happens unexpectedly.

I’m writing this ten minutes after just such an experience, and every impulse I have makes me want to reach out with love and gratitude to the author of those words for what they have unknowingly bequeathed me. For the first time in almost 30 years, I have cried, unselfconsciously, freely and completely.

I don’t know the author in real life, but I have resisted commenting in the blog in question, or DMing him on Twitter. I think I’m fearful of being thought a crank or some kind of internet weirdo, or simply causing embarrassment.

Instead, I’m going to throw a few words into my own patch of cyberspace, in the hope that serendipity will lead the author here sometime, and that he will realise these words are intended for him.

Put simply, I had no conception until tonight of the raw power of words written honestly and from the heart. I simply don’t have the vocabulary to express how profoundly life-altering my accidental bedtime reading turned out to be. That’s what I want to tell the writer. That, and thank you.