Language, and our responsibilities to it.

April 3, 2008

I place a great deal of stock in precision in language. Words and how they are used, after all, are a direct manifestation of our thoughts. Once upon a time, I’d wanted to teach English, but a quarter in the College of Education cured me of that. I didn’t even finish it out, dropping the classes and immediately applying to the Journalism school. I never worked as a journalist, but have nevertheless found that a command of language is an invaluable tool regardless of the field of work. It was very common for me to, over time, acquire the additional role of copy editor/wordsmith for whoever my manager happened to be at the time. Frankly, I was happy to do it. Few things give a grammatical nitpicker pleasure like ruthlessly editing a poorly-written press release, e-mail or customer communication.

I’ve occasionally considered returning to school to study literature, perhaps with an eye towards teaching it when I get older and have more time and fewer responsibilities. Usually, a brief chat with a friend of ours who actually is a college English teacher is enough to bring me back to reality. So I press on – slowly picking my way through the Canon and brushing up on usage and style whenever I can. Curiously, the improving ability to clearly express myself has also resulted in a…I’m not sure how to put this…greater sensitivity to what I hear when I’m listening to others. Here is a person, expressing their thoughts. What I do not hear – the pauses, omissions, brief reflections – tell me almost as much as the words themselves. It’s worth the time to carefully listen to the other person, to reflect on the totality of their expression.

This, I think, is a great gift, and one that I hope we can pass along to our children. I think anyone can attain it. Take up and read. Find things that are difficult and try them. Revisit the things you read in high school and college – you will doubtlessly find that a few years of life experience since graduation will bring these books back into clear focus. You will be surprised – don’t be. They are classics for a reason. Themes and symbols that utterly escape the average teenager will come into clear relief after you’ve spent some time in relationships, getting married, starting a family, building a career, struggling and so on.

The plan, inasmuch as we have one, looks something like this:

  • Increase their exposure to good books, teaching them to read as soon as they are ready, and make a library card an important rite-of-passage.
  • Eliminate the presence of the television in our home. There is no cable or satellite connection.
  • Carefully monitor their use of other visual media – we have a room just for movies, and they are allowed to watch things from a small library we keep.
  • Associate, as much as we can, with others who share similar views
  • Emphasize the role of communication and text in terms of our relationship with God, through participation in the Liturgy, study of the Scriptures and acquaintance with the Fathers.
  • Set the example by continuously improving and learning on our own. We don’t stop learning until we die and we know as we are known.
  • Seek wisdom in the received texts of our western patrimony
  • Utterly reject of the modern method of criticism. Strive to understand the works on their own terms and in their own contexts. The dead, too, deserve a vote.
  • Encourage an intense curiosity in (and appreciation of) the natural world around us, which hopefully leads to further reading and research.

The fruits, I think, are already evident. Glossing over things isn’t as easy as it used to be with our oldest children, and the younger ones are hot on their heels. The four-year-old will probably start her reading lessons this summer. Our youngest progresses daily in talking. The baby…well, she’s still just crawling around. Let’s not go crazy here.


3 Responses to “Language, and our responsibilities to it.”

  1. PeregrinJoe Says:

    Amen! And again I say Amen! Excellent post. I wholeheartedly agree. Learning is a life-long journey and if that thirst for knowledge and understanding can be imparted to a child, they will have a lifetime filled with treasures and delightful discoveries.

    And you are very accurate in your thoughts regarding the classics. I am revisiting many classics I “should” have read in high school but glossed over because I was convinced they had nothing to say to me, a 17 year old who obviously had it all figured out–HA! Now, when I read those books I find them wonderful, poignant, and very relevant.

  2. fosco Says:


    My ongoing reading project has been idle for a little while, but I’m ramping up to get back into it shortly. In addition to relevance, let’s face it, much of the humor is lost on kids. I read Tom Sawyer any number of times as a kid, but as I re-read it at bedtime I was astonished at the fierceness of Twain’s satire, especially in the little asides. The kids heard, as I did originally, the adventures of a boy and his band of friends. As an adult, the experience was completely different.

  3. PeregrinJoe Says:

    You are right. I find it is the same with The Chronicles of Narnia. When I read them as a kid (7 times!) I saw them as magical adventure stories. As an adult, the story of Christ is so evident in them it amazes me that I did not see it the first times I read them. I think we learn to love great stories as kids and grow in our understanding and full appreciation of them as adults. As you said, that’s why they are called classics.

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