A different language

by | Saturday, February 14, 2009

I have always been interested in how we use words to capture intangibles. For instance wine connoisseurs have developed a specialized language (which sadly is quite opaque to me) to explain to each other characteristics of wine. So the words “fruity” and “dry” have specific gustatory connections.

I was reminded of this on hearing this NPR story (Andrew Bird: Words As Instruments) about singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird. This is how he describes the goal of his latest album:

Bird says that his main focus while working on Noble Beast was to represent texture in his music.
“I think of like, when I was a kid, and I would get my Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass and throw myself down in a pile of mulch or something and go in there and pretend that I was microscopic,” Bird says. “I wanted to capture that kind of woody, mossy, decaying kind of sound.”

Think about this for a moment. A “woody, mossy, decaying kind of sound.” What does that even mean? But I guess it made sense to Bird and if you listen to his music, you can sense what he was talking about. Here is he talking about how his latest work compared with his previous music.

“I’ve always been obsessed with moss and moose’s horns. The number eight, the sort of roundness of the number eight,” he says. “The last record I made is a much more, like, pointy, toothy, jagged record. This one I wanted to make a more warm, bubbly, steamy record.”

[You can listen to the entire story, and more, by going here.]

BTW, If this seems utterly abstract to you, here is a simple quiz that should help you grasp the general idea. Look at the images below and answer to yourself, which of these images represents the sound “oompha” and which represents the sound “kakatua.” Is there any doubt in your mind about this?

The issue is not as much about whether one can develop of science of such cross-sensation representation (images for music or vice versa) but rather that such representations are even possible. The goal is to develop reasonably coherent representational schemes that allow us to develop consistent mappings between two disparate domains.

My particular interest of course is in education and teaching. I believe that teaching involves a range of experiences that defy verbal description – in the simple iconic sense of description. I believe that teaching and learning for too long has been described in brutally cognitive or instrumental terms. Clearly these approaches are important, but as important may be ways of expressing ideas and experiences that often do not receive much attention. What we need to do is develop a language that allow us to somewhat consistently express and represent the intangibles of teaching, somewhat like what Bird does in explaining his music (or wine connoisseurs do when describing wine). The lack of such a language essentially prevents us from recognizing that classrooms are far more than 4 walls, a teacher and a bunch of students… and that aesthetics play a great role in the act of teaching and learning.

Come to think of it, even before we think about what language to use to capture these ideas, we may want to focus on getting people to acknowledge that aesthetics and affect has a role to play in learning. Most educational psychology discourse does not include such vague and hard-to-measure ideas.

A few randomly selected blog posts…

Txting develops spelling skills, how gr8

Scott Graden is Superintendent of Saline Area Schools and a blogger. He recently posted about a study that indicated that texting helps students develop vocabulary skills. Though he was skeptical of the finding, I am not sure I was as surprised. He cited a news story...

Photos from SITE08

Matt has Flickrd photos from SITE08. Some of these photos are taken by me, but the rules are that the owner of the camera automatically gets the bragging rights 🙂 and since I didn't take my camera along, he takes credit for all the pictures. Given that a bunch of...

TPACK Handbook, new review

Just found out about a review of the Handbook of TPACK by Dorian Stoilescu and Douglas McDougall for the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology (2009). You can read the full review here. Overall a positive review, with some pertinent criticism, particularly...

The revolution will be twittered

The recent (and ongoing) evens in Iran sadden me deeply... but also give me hope. The scenes and news emerging from there speak of courage and a need and demand for freedom. What is also amazing has been the use of technology particularly twitter to get news out of...

TPACK Handbook, Chapter 1

There have been many requests for the first chapter of the TPACK Handbook (recently published by AACTE & Routledge). Below is the summary and a link to the pre-publication version. Koehler, M.J., & Mishra, P. (2008). Introducing TPCK. AACTE Committee on...

New media, new genres

There is an interesting article in today's NYTimes titled Content and its discontents by Virginia Heffernan. In this article she makes the argument the new digital, online media require new ways of representing information, new ways of thinking about how ideas are...

Is the web making us stupid?

... or just narrow? I just discovered Britannica blog, a pretty lively virtual space for intelligent discussion. How I had not come across it earlier is a mystery - but again that is the beauty of the web. Anyway, there is an ongoing discussion there about how the web...

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

An essay by Mohsin Hamid (titled My reluctant fundamentalist) about the process of writing his novel "The reluctant fundamentalist." What stands out in this piece is an excellent description of the extended and often painful act of creation - in this case a novel. I...

1 Comment

  1. Andrea

    Is amazing how this post fits my vision 😉
    I have always thought the same things. One of the books that have given me the core of this idea is, amazingly, “Flatland”. In my italian edition there is a final essay, from Giorgio Manganelli, called “A location is a language”.
    I like to think of our personal language as a system, a “place” defined by the words I know and use. I think of them as dimension, or equations in a system. The define the “place”. In this sense, when a language has a word that is not in another language, that is a further “dimension”. I always been fascinated how humans struggle to define a “place” using the language: it’s the same principle that lead Innuits to have several synonyms for “white” and “snow”, and the entomologists to create a glossary to describe butterfly’s wings. The same for wine connoisseurs and art critics. We need to “live places”,for which we develop vocabularies, to understand them better. Then they becomes normal, the’re “our home”, our culture, our environment.



  1. The intangibles of teaching | Punya Mishra's Web - [...] A different language [...]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *