Yet somehow children pick up everything around them, from how to behave, through to how others expect them to conform to their roles (even such obtuse roles as gender roles) without you saying anything directly to them?
Perhaps even before they can say many words themselves?
Sometimes this is quite subtle and sometimes its quite surprisingly blatant.
The other day I was talking with a friend who has bought a new "hot" sports car. Her husband was driving it aggressively and pretty much having fun with their 3 year old daughter also squealing and giggling with joy and entertainment. Later on when "mummy" was driving a bit "tight" into some corners her daughter told her that she shouldn't drive like daddy because it wasn't safe.
Their daughter had already learned a lot about many things (including sex roles) without any of it being explained with instructions.
For some time I've been of the view that words are cumbersome things, but are there because they facilitate communication which can not be done any other way (yet), however they do far more than that as they even define our cultures and shape our capacity to think.
Have you had friends who know you well enough that you can say just the beginnings of something and they understand what you mean?
Which is sort of funny that we've taken a word with a different meaning from an older usage, dusted it off and put it to use in a new (but related) role.
We essentially discharge all of the meanings of what the word stood for and gave it new ones. Interestingly we don't do this with numbers.
Few native English speakers truly ever learn another language, but those who do often regard words differently and even how to express ideas differently.
Anyone who learns to program a computer either fails to do it well or learns to think outside "words" and think in objects, methods and actions ... even if they are using a non Object Oriented language.
Artists often communicate via their art in more complex ways, but of course it being a "language" that's close to the artist its meaning remains obscure to anyone who doesn't know the artist (and thus the language).
Words are powerful tools, but they also are somehow dangerous, as they limit our ability to think outside them. For many people the words they use define not only what they can say, but how they can think about things. Clearly many people have felt this and turned to other expression forms (like music or painting) to express themselves well.
One of the new media for expression and communication is motion picture combined with rich sound and careful scripting and direction. A well made movie can take someone and introduce an idea in such a rich way that multiple watches of the movie reveal multiple dimensions of depth and meaning to them over time (well sure, not many do it well). One of my personal favourites is the scene from Black Sails where John Silver is being taught about himself by Captain Flint. A compelling scene that is well directed and well acted.
Watching the movie Lucy the other night I see that I'm not the only one who sees things this way.
One of the things that Lucy does is to identify that thinking in specific languages limits her, but it soon limits her ability to communicate with others who are only actually able to think in words. She becomes able to see things and anticipate things which would be impossible for her to communicate with the constraints of words.
Words not only form our thinking but if we are not careful (and keep our thoughts only as words) slow us down as well as limit us.
Words as knowledge containers and transmission mediaWe could not teach others many of the things we know as a species if we only used words. One could not train a swimmer or teach the piano from a book, yet somehow we look to words as the codification of our society ... words as laws ... usually leads to arguments about meanings.
Some people are fond of of the idea that "if its in black and white" (meaning words on paper) then its clear ... how false that premise really is.
I believe that what holds us back from further development is the reliance on words for communication. I'm not sure how that will form up, or even if it would require us to become more specialised (like insects) to even achieve it. Perhaps achieving it (like it did for Lucy) would require us leaving our humanity behind us ... well as we have known it for the last few thousand years. Will that be good or bad?
Words essentially are auditory ... although writing makes them visual in a way. We are essentially visual creatures with more of our brains dedicated to vision than to sound. We even use words to express this and our need to "visualise" a problem in order to solve it.
Medicine (among other sciences) has benefited enormously from advances in the ability to see things. Lenses gave us microscopes with which we saw an entirely new world. As soon as we could see it we began learning about it ... but then making mud for ourselves by writing it down in an attempt to allow others to see what we've seen without them seeing it.
... as a photographer I've always been frustrated by the situations of people seeing the images I carefully crafted and then (one day when they go there) saying "wow, its so much more than I saw in the picture"
Learning is experiential, and communication is a learned thing too ... so perhaps its time to extend the boundaries of our learning and teach visual as well as auditory words.
Of course to do that we'd need to construct a visual language ...