This week I have been getting closer to my inner self. No, I have not entered a hippy commune, but I have joined hundreds of other like-minded people at the annual Happiness Conference in Melbourne. Not as off-the-wall as it perhaps sounds, the conference brings together speakers from around the globe to share their surprisingly practical tips for maintaining our equilibriums.
But happiness is not in fact my theme for this week. What struck me again throughout this week, apart from the resonating themes of health, happiness and well-being that formed the core of most of the presentations, is the immense power of language to convey meaning.
Imagine nearly 2,000 people captivated by the words of one man. Granted, this man was His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and warrants our attention almost by default, but where would he be without his carefully chosen words? They are his stock and trade, the means by which he engages with the world, shares the plight of his people and passes on his wisdom (his laugh does help though, it is mesmerising and will absolutely make you smile every time).
Although perhaps the most significant orator of the week, he was by no means the only one, as presenter after presenter breathed life in to their ideas through the power of language. What an amazing thing it is, this ability, unique amongst all living things on this planet, to share thoughts and ideas by linking different sounds together.
But more than that, we can also convert these sounds in to symbols, again linking them together in patterns that mean something to others. Inspired by a number of speakers, I purchased their books. You would expect that removing voice and expression from the content would somehow lessen the impact, but in fact these qualities are somehow replaced by other elements, not least the ability of the written word to inspire imagination. When reading silently, the words themselves somehow become only one part of the story, the rest of which is supplied by our minds; the characters, landscapes, even the weather, somehow taking their cue from the words but becoming so much more.
This is why, in my role as a tutor to the speakers and writers of the next generation, I encourage them to think beyond the simple structure of the words and instead consider how they come to life when presented in a certain way. Texting, blogs, computer games, and all other manner of minimised communication, add nothing to the expression that language is capable of. Please don’t misunderstand me, they have their place, as effective tools for the quick transmission of fact, but they do not take full advantage of the written words ability to inspire, persuade and engage.
I recently watched a news story about a technology-rich school in Singapore that has replaced writing skills with a focus on technology, the theory being that the latter will have more value in five years’ time as the students enter the workforce. Perhaps, but in the absence of persuasive writing skills, how will the leaders of the future inspire their followers? How will the writers of the future create those worlds of the imagination in our heads?
There must still be a place in education for our languages to grow and develop, as they have for thousands of years, since long before Shakespeare, and ever since. Opposable thumbs are certainly an obvious physical characteristic of humanity, but I would argue that our ability to think beyond our present state, to use words to create ideas and stories that resonate far beyond the symbols on the page, is an equally defining characteristic of our humanity.
Hmmm, a slightly heavier tone this week. You can probably tell that language is a passion of mine, one that I am not willing to sacrifice to the efficiency of technology, and one that I believe is fundamentally important for your children. So please, encourage them to read, discuss with them what they read, help them to understand how important those little symbols on the page are and how necessary it is for them to be able to understand and use them. Till next time, happy reading!