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Diversity: The Experience of Language

Simon J. Ortiz has written an essay in Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing that reveals compelling insights into the experience of language. The focus of the essay is to compare the Native Indian to our traditional English orientation to language. Throughout this essay we are presented with ideas about how language experienced, the role of perception in language, the limitations of traditional English language education, and insight into the immense cultural power of Native Indian language...

Learning The Acquired Context In Which Other People Learn"

In his essay Song, Poetry, and Language: Expression and Perception, Simon Ortiz has clearly expressed a fundamental difficulty that dramatically reduces the education system's ability to embrace to cultural diversity.

One of the greatest challenges in appreciating other cultural beliefs and values is in finding ways of communicating across not just different languages, but different ways if perceiving language and life. Another person's culture cannot be fully appreciated by mere acts of translation or developing fluency with a second language. Language reflects the style and mystery of the cultural experience. As Simon Ortiz points out:

Language, when it is regarded not only as expression but is realized as experience as well, works in and is of that manner. Language is perception of experience as well as expression.
- Simon Ortiz in Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing

In other words, the secret life of language is mysterious. We often denigrate the mystery by imposing our own cultural signs and symbols against another culture. Edward Hall's states the issue clearly and precisely:

Learning, then, is one of the basic activities of life, and educators might have a better grasp of their art if they would take a leaf out of the book of early pioneers in descriptive linguistics and learn about their subject by studying the acquired context in which other people learn.
- Edward Hall in The Silent Language

Clearly, one cannot "learn" the Native American language or culture via education, for education is not an "acquired" context but an "imposed" one. It is possible to be well educated in Native American language and culture without experiencing it in any meaningful way.

Learning and Expansive Language

Compare Edward Hall's insight to this comment by Ortiz:

Children don't limit their words until they learn how, until they're told that it's better to use definitive words. This is what happens to most everyone in formal education situations. Education defines you. It makes you see with and within very definitive limits. Unless you teach and learn language in such a way as to permit it to remain or for it to become all expansive - and truly visionary - your expressiveness and perceptions will be limited and even divided.
- Simon Ortiz in Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing

The idea of language being all expansive and studying the acquired context in which people learn are closely connected. An all expansive approach means that we cannot isolate language from the experiences where the language itself lives and breathes. If language we intend to acquire exists in a total surround that is foreign to us, and we are taught that language by the way of our own cultural preferences at the expense of its natural context, then what we are really attempting to do is to assimilate a language different than our own rather than understand and appreciate - and learn from it.

I try to perceive that context, meaning, purpose... A song, a poem, becomes real in that manner. You learn its completeness... You learn a song in the way you are supposed to learn a language, as expression and as experience.

I think it is possible to teach song and poetry in a classroom so that language is a real way of teaching and learning. The effort will have to be with conveying the importance and significance of not only the words and sounds but the realness of the song in terms of oneself, context, and the particular language used, community, the totality of what is around.More complete expression and perception will be possible then.
- Simon Ortiz in Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing

Notice Ortiz's natural orientation to person, lifestyle, and myth. Ortiz wonderfully describes how music is expressed in his culture:

My father tells me, "This is a hunting song, listen." He sings and I listen. He may sing it again, and I hear it again. The feeling that I perceive is not only contained in the words but there is something surrounding those words, surrounding the song, and it includes us. It is the relationship that we share with each other and everything else. And that's the feeling that makes the song real and meaningful...
- Simon Ortiz in Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing

It is interesting to consider that schools, at least none that I am aware of, have an oral tradition. It seems that we can enter into any school and it seems strikingly similar in kind to any other school. I wonder why it is we default students experiences to those that we have pre-selected for them. In many ways, rather than schools being centers of cultural development they are more often than not observers of their own cultural development. And worse, people coming from different cultures into the education system are all too often not viewed as sources of creativity that can inspire the school. Instead, they are frequently viewed as "ESL" students or some such thing that need to acquire the ways and methods of our culture. As with Ortiz's insights on the teaching of English language, this is the very opposite of an expansive approach.

The Language Of My Experience

I'm not sure we appreciate in any meaningful way the extreme loss humankind incurs when a diversity becomes an endangered species. When language is viewed in Ortiz's terms as being expansive, we are given a clear sign that we are indeed suffering an extreme loss when we fail to embrace the new ways of expression and perception another culture has to offer us. Ortiz's closing words capture the need for more expansive approaches to learning quite wonderfully:

The words, the language of my experience, come from how I understand, how I relate to the world around me, and how I know language as perception. That language allows me vision to see with and by which to know myself.
- Simon Ortiz in Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing

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Hi Pearl,

Interesting thoughts here. I agree with you that many schools do encourage group work and and oral interaction. My son in his second year commerce program at university, for example, has done a number of group work projects this year. As a teacher myself, I often encouraged activities that were more oriented toward group dialogue and interaction.

At the same time, I would not say that either my son's experiences or my own attempts had anything to do with encouraging or promoting an oral tradition. The two are quite different in kind. One of the things I enjoyed most about Ortiz's essay was the orientation to oral tradition.

Regarding, "a monolithic group acting uniformly," I didn't read that in the essay. The experiences he described, it seems to me, are fully integrated with the fabric of living in a manner that makes them inseparable. The fundamental orientation to language he describes is integrative and unified.

With respect to schools, it would be tempting to characterize schools as a monolithic group acting uniformly but this of course would not stand up. However, we can say that the orientation to language in schools is strikingly different from the orientation to language that Ortiz describes. Language in schools largely originates in notions about literacy, while language in Ortiz's world language originates in the confluence of experience.

I believe there is an important difference here and, to be completely open, I also believe that the orientation to language and living described by Ortiz is vastly superior to that in our schools. This is not to say that literacy doesn't have a place or a role, but I do not believe it should dominate. As we have seen, the more we attempt to teach literacy, the less literate students become.

An oral tradition in the school systems, again not as the dominant delivery system but as an integral part of it, would have many significant benefits. But fostering an oral tradition in schools is quite a different thing from encouraging oral interaction and group work.

Learning decontextualized material is like drinking chunky soup through a strainer. You still get some of the goodness but much is lost with the texture.

> we can somehow better understand that music by applying our own methods to it.

It is reductionist as well but we grasp knowledge with the handsize we have. There is value in looking full experientially and aspect by aspect.

In Canada a lot of schools emphasize group work and oral interaction, projects, performances to ready students for workplace group dynamics. But it varies class to class, school to school, term to term based on the chemistry and choices that evolve in each instance. This does not mean oral tradition becomes the dominant method. Each option has its failings and its strengths for any individual in any moment.

Does Ortiz or do you suggest either Natives or schools are a monolithic group acting uniformly?

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