Teaching And Learning

Both of these items have changed over the years, but they are a vital part of life and necessary for us all. Sadly that does not seem to be recognised by everyone and some seem to work on the principle that the knowledge they have gives them a degree of power. There are many ways to teach, some people are better at it than others but we can perhaps forget that we all have differing ways to learn. In addition, with teaching comes learning, but those who teach also have to learn the skill of teaching, for you may be sure that it is indeed a skill. As with all skills, teaching itself is never static, it is continually changing. I was told very many years ago that the worst teachers are those who have either no lesson plan or at best a laminated one! In general there is a recognised format for teaching, where the teacher creates a basic lesson plan, but after delivering it they review it and consider what went well, what did not, identifying areas that can then be changed. The lesson is then revised and delivered. That is once again reviewed afterwards and the circle continues. In addition, as part of the teaching process we continually check for understanding, recognising the abilities of some and nurturing others, encouraging positively. I have said before how some folk I have taught are almost ‘instant’ learners, whilst with others a little more time is required to help get a particular message across. It is at this point that the instant learners can become bored and at times even disruptive, so a good teacher will often get the instant learners to do their part in assisting those who need help. Care must be taken to ensure that the teaching is done properly – I think that is perhaps where the phrase ‘eyes in the back of the head’ may come in! Certainly teachers must be alert to all that is going on around them and not be distracted. So as I have said, teaching is an art and just with all skills, it is not just the students who are being taught as teachers themselves are constantly learning. But how we learn and how we teach changes, or perhaps ‘adapts’ all the time is a better term. On tv at present we have a group of people who are so very clever in practical terms at what they do but as well as working individually, at times they combine the skills one with another. They too are constantly learning. I saw in one episode of the programme, called ‘The Repair Shop’, where one particular item was brought in and it was a musical box in a delightful wooden case. The mechanical item which played the music was carefully removed and one expert cleaned and restored that, whilst another expert took on the task of cleaning and restoring the wooden box. How they do it I do not know, it really is a skill that all of them have! Sometimes one of them will say they’ve never seen one of these items before but they would do their best – and they do! Yes, at times things don’t go as smoothly as they might like, but they achieve. Equally, as I saw on one occasion, a part was considered simply impossible to restore so a ‘donor’ item was found to replace the one which could not be fixed. But the old one was still kept, as it was all part of the whole piece being repaired.


But an essential part of teaching and learning is a common ‘language’. If I try to teach you something, even a simple game, there has to be what I would call “commonality” between us. My native language is English, it is true that I know a little Spanish but not much. Even when written, some languages are quite different. I can look at work written in Spanish and with a bit of luck I might be able to work out the meaning, but what if it were written in Hindu or Chinese, in Arabic or Hebrew? We also have differences in word placement, even in simple things like for example ‘the left hand’ in Spanish is ‘la mano izquierda’, which translates directly as ‘the hand left’. Add to that the different tenses, it is not hard to see how language can be difficult. During my research, I saw a question asking which language has the most words for snow? According to researchers at the University of Glasgow, the winner is the Scots! They claim they have 421 words for snow. Does it really? Here again, it’s all in how you count. The researchers came up with the list whilst working on a thesaurus for the Scots language. Their list includes quite a few compound words, and the folks at Language Log are quite skeptical of this claim, but it is still impressive. One Scottish language lecturer says that the number of words are all sorts of things to do with snow, the way that snow moves, the types of snow, types of snowflake, types of thaw, clothing you might wear in snow, the way that snow affects animals. There is even a category for snow and the supernatural! So a few examples are:

Feefle: Snow swirling around a corner.
Flindrikin: A light snow shower.
Skelf: A large snowflake.
Sneesl: To begin to rain or snow.
Snaw-ghast: A ghost seen in the snow.
Blin-drift: Drifting snow.
Snow-smoor: Suffocation by snow.
Snaw-broo: Melted snow.
Glush: Melting snow.
Ground-gru: Half-liquid snow or ice formed in early spring floating along the surface of a river.

A question was asked as to why there are so many words for snow? One answer given was that because weather has been a vital part of people’s lives in Scotland for centuries. The number and variety of words in the language show how important it was for their ancestors to communicate about the weather, which could so easily affect their livelihoods. It is an interesting thought. So we communicate in different ways with different languages, but human language is distinct and unique from all other known animal forms of communication. It is unlikely that any other species, including our close genetic cousins the Neanderthals, ever had language, and so-called sign ‘language’ in Great Apes is nothing like human language. Language evolution shares many features with biological evolution, and this has made it useful for tracing recent human history and for studying how culture evolves among groups of people with related languages. A case can be made that language has played a more important role in our species’ recent (about the last 200,000 years) evolution than have our genes. Human language is distinct from all other known animal forms of communication in being ‘compositional’, as it allows speakers to express thoughts in sentences comprising subjects, verbs and objects, such as ‘I kicked the ball’ and recognising past, present and future tenses. This gives human language an endless capacity for generating new sentences, as speakers combine and recombine sets of words into their subject, verb and object roles. For instance, with just 25 different words for each role, it is already possible to generate over 15,000 distinct sentences. Human language is also ‘referential’, meaning speakers use it to exchange specific information with each other about people or objects and their locations or actions.

Animal Language.

Animal ‘language’ is nothing like human language. Among primates, vervet monkeys produce three distinct alarm calls in response to the presence of snakes, leopards and eagles. A number of parrot species can mimic human sounds, and some Great Apes have been taught to make sign language gestures with their hands. Some dolphin species seem to have a variety of repetitive sound motifs (clicks) associated with hunting or social grouping. These forms of animal communication are symbolic in the sense of using a sound to stand in for an object or action, but there is no evidence for compositional skills, or that they are truly generative and creative forms of communication in which speakers and listeners exchange information. Instead, non-human animal communication appears to be principally limited to repetitive instrumental acts directed towards a specific end, lacking any formal grammatical structure, and often explainable in terms of hard-wired evolved behaviours or simple associative learning. Most ape sign language, for example, is concerned with requests for food. The trained chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky’s longest recorded ‘utterance’, when translated from sign language, was ‘give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you’. Alarm calls such as observed in the vervet monkeys often evolve by kin-selection to protect one’s relatives, or even selfishly to distract predators away from the caller. Hunting and social group communications can be explained as learned coordinating signals without ‘speakers’ knowing why they are acting as they are. No one knows for sure when human language evolved, but fossil and genetic data suggest that humanity can probably trace its ancestry back to populations of anatomically modern ‘Homo sapiens’ who lived around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago in eastern or perhaps southern Africa. Because all human groups have language, language itself, or at least the capacity for it, is probably at least 150,000 to 200,000 years old. This conclusion is backed up by evidence of abstract and symbolic behaviour in these early modern humans, taking the form of engravings on red-ochre. These archaeological records reveal that about 40,000 years ago there was a flowering of art and other cultural artefacts at modern human sites, leading some archaeologists to suggest that a late genetic change in our lineage gave rise to language at this later time. But this evidence derives mainly from European sites and so struggles to explain how the newly evolved language capacity found its way into the rest of humanity who had dispersed from Africa to other parts of the globe by around 70,000 years ago. This therefore begs the question ‘Could language be older than our species?’. Ancient DNA reveals us to be over 99% identical in the sequences of our protein coding genes to our sister species the Neanderthals (‘Homo neanderthalensis’). The Neanderthals had large brains and were able to inhabit much of Eurasia from around 350,000 years ago. If the Neanderthals had language, that would place its origin at least as far back as the time of our common ancestor with them, currently thought to be around 550,000 to 750,000 years ago. However, even as recently as 40,000 years ago in Europe, the Neanderthals show almost no evidence of the symbolic thinking – no art or sculpture for example – that we often associate with language, and little evidence of the cultural attainments of ‘Homo sapiens’ of the same era. By 40,000 years ago, we had plentiful art, musical instruments and specialised tools such as sewing needles. Neanderthals probably didn’t even have sewn clothing, instead they would have merely draped themselves with skins. And, despite evidence that around 1–5% of the human genome might be derived from Human–Neanderthal matings, the Neanderthals went extinct as a species whilst we flourished. Questions have been asked as to whether the changes to language can be used to trace human history. I do think this is possible. There are currently about 7,000 languages spoken around the world, meaning that, oddly, most of us cannot communicate with most other members of our species! Even this number is probably down from the peak of human linguistic diversity that was likely to have occurred around 10,000 years ago, just prior to the invention of agriculture. Before that time, all human groups had been hunter-gatherers, living in small mobile tribal societies. Farming societies were demographically more prosperous and group sizes were larger than among hunter-gatherers, so the expansion of agriculturalists likely replaced many smaller linguistic groups. Today, there are few hunter-gatherer societies left so our linguistic diversity reflects our relatively recent agricultural past. The ‘ancestry’ of languages can be used in combination with geographical information or information on cultural practices to investigate questions of human history, such as the spread of agriculture. The historical ‘families’ of language have been used to study the timing, causes and geographic spread of groups of farmers/fishing populations, including the Indo-Europeans, the pace of occupation of the Pacific by the Austronesian people and the migration routes of the Bantu-speaking people through Africa. This same historical ancestry are also being used to investigate questions of human cultural evolution, including the evolution and spread of dairying, relationships between religious and political practices, changing political structures and the age of fairy tales. They have even supplied a date for Homer’s Iliad. But language has played a prominent and possibly pre-eminent role in our species’ history. Consider that where all other species tend to be found in the environments their genes adapt them to, humans can adapt at the cultural level, acquiring the knowledge and producing the tools, shelters, clothing and other artefacts necessary for survival in diverse habitats. Thus, chimpanzees are found in the dense forests of Africa but not out on the savannah or in deserts or cold regions, camels are found in dry regions but not in forests or mountaintops, and so on for other species. Humans, on the other hand, despite being a species that probably evolved on the African savannahs, have been able to occupy nearly every habitat on Earth. Our behaviour is like that of a collection of biological species. As to why there is this striking difference, it is probably down to language. Possessing language, humans have had a high-fidelity code for transmitting detailed information down the generations. Many, if not most, of the things we make use of in our everyday lives rely on specialised knowledge or skills to produce. The information behind these was historically coded in verbal instructions, and with the advent of writing it could be stored and become increasingly complex. Possessing language, then, is behind humans’ ability to produce sophisticated cultural adaptations that have accumulated one on top of the other throughout our history as a species. Today as a result of this capability we live in a world full of technologies that few of us even understand. Because culture, riding on the back of language, can evolve more rapidly than genes, the relative genetic homogeneity of humanity in contrast to our cultural diversity shows that our ‘aural DNA’ has probably been more important in our short history than genes. Nevertheless, the necessity for learning new things and being properly taught must surely be at the forefront of our living, especially as technology continues to change at what some might consider to be almost too fast!

This week… By and Large.
As far back as the 16th century, the word ‘large’ was used to mean that a ship was sailing with the wind at its back. Meanwhile, the much less desirable ‘by’ or ‘full and by’ meant the vessel was travelling into the wind. Thus, for mariners, ‘by and large’ referred to trawling the seas in any and all directions relative to the wind. Today, sailors and landlubbers alike now use the phrase as a synonym for ‘all things considered’ or ‘for the most part’.

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