24 Apr What Was That Word?
From a cognitive perspective, we have reason to believe that, for most ordinary communication, words are more important to successful communication than sentences. As the complexity rises, so rises the importance of well-formed phrases and sentences. At an early age, kids begin to communicate using sounds. They progress from there to the single-word stage in which they combine a gesture, such as pointing, with a word to express a complete thought. Children in the one-word stage are usually very expressive and capable communicators (Crane & Yeager, 1981). As they progress through two-word, multi-word and, finally, complete-sentence communication, the breadth of their ability to communicate increases radically while expressiveness – the depth of their communication skills – may or may not grow appreciably.
|Understanding Context Cross-Reference
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|Form and Substance in Communication
|St. Augustine 1952
Related to expressiveness in language acquisition is the fact that, through all stages of language acquisition for children and adults, we learn vocabulary one unit at a time. As we acquire vocabulary, we relate new words to words we already know. We relate them to synonyms, homonyms, homographs, and words that share a classification or domain. These associations enable us to combine them in unique and new ways, perhaps in combinations never before used, to express cohesive thoughts.
From the Confessions of St. Augustine, Book I:23 Why then did I hate the Greek classics, which have the like tales? For Homer also curiously wove the like fictions, and is most sweetly-vain, yet was he bitter to my boyish taste. And so I suppose would Virgil be to the Grecian children, when forced to learn him as I was Homer. Difficulty, in truth, the difficulty of a foreign tongue, dashed, as it were, with gall all the sweetness of Grecian fable. For not one word of it did I understand, and to make me understand I was urged vehemently with cruel threats and punishments. Time was also (as an infant) I knew Latin; but this I learned without fear of suffering, by mere observation, amid the caresses of my nursery and jests of my friends, smiling and sportively encouraging me. This I learned without any pressure of punishment to urge on me, for my heart urged me to give birth to its conceptions, which I could only do by learning words not of those who taught, but of those who talked with me; in whose ears also I gave birth to the thoughts, whatever I conceived. Only this enforcement restrains us from the rovings of that freedom… (St. Augustine, 1952)
Augustine’s schoolmaster must not have subscribed to modern teaching theories that advocate making learning fun ;}. Isn’t it a shame, that by the time we master enough words to communicate effectively, we begin losing them to old age and forgetfullness.
Will computers have to go through the same stages of learning to achieve competence and proficiency in language generation and comprehension? Fortunately, computers don’t suffer much from the forgetfullness problem. It will still be a massive challenge trying to teach computer translation programs to find the right word, in the right context, to express the intent of the original speaker or writer. But I believe we are on the right track.
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