Loss of Language, Loss of Thought

Loss of language among the younger population — that is to say, the ability to formulate and enunciate properly constructed sentences that reflect clear thought — is growing at a staggering rate in the United States. Even among students whose academic aptitude is well above the national average, my years as an undergraduate business professor show that four out of five will make grave spelling errors in written assignments or exams, and about half that regularly commit grammatical blunders. The ubiquitous confusion between “there” and “their” may still be considered a quaint and negligible fluke that nearly creates a new orthographic norm; the inability to express lucid arguments must not.

What is being lost is the capacity to think in terms of cause and effect, of distinguishing between differing levels of argument, and particularly any appreciation for abstraction. Increasingly, students expect to be spoon-fed with concrete examples, operational instructions, mechanical repetitions, and pictorial representation. The loss of language is but a symptom of the loss of thought — and losing thought means losing much more.

Assume a typical question in an introductory class on marketing: “Why do we segment markets?” A typical student response is: “What do you mean?” Even the most experienced professor can only paraphrase the question: “Why do we, in nearly all product markets, break down total customer demand into smaller groups?” A response will then frequently start with, “It’s like . . .” The question requires students to provide an explanation and not a definition — to recognize that the question concerns reasons and not causes, and that these reasons must be of a more general nature than any particular example of segmented markets. Inability to answer the question reveals not a lack of factual knowledge — every student can understand the variability in consumers’ desire for and benefits from various products. It rather shows deficiency in grasping the nature of “why” questions, which require moving beyond concrete examples.

Let us, in Wittgenstein’s fashion, look at the grammar of “it’s like,” for it reveals the nature of the problem. The phrase seeks to define something by exemplification. As an answer to the question, “What is a ball?” the “it” in “it’s like” does not refer to the definiendum, but to the request for a definition. The traditional way of defining something, according to Aristotle and the scholastic logicians, was per genus proximum et differentiam specificam: We need to name the higher category to which a term belongs, then specify some characteristic that sets it apart from other things within this category.
However, “like” does not seek to place a ball into the next higher category of spheres or objects, nor does it offer a synonym. It gives an instance of balls, or of the usage of balls. Providing merely an aspect of what is to be explained is not only reductionist (by substituting a part for the whole); it is also a subjectivist move that avoids describing and thus reflecting on the essence of what is to be explained. It is indicative of our age of increasing relativism under the guise of “pluralism” and “tolerance” — your feeling about the nature of something is just as good as my feeling, because there really isn’t any “is”; there may not even be an “a.” Then a ball might as well have edges, for who can tell me that I can only call something a ball if it is round?
The problem ultimately lies in a misconstrued metaphysics, or rather in the absence of any notion of ontology at all. When Bill Clinton was asked whether he had sexual relations with a White House intern and famously replied that this depended on the meaning of “is,” his statement was of course evasive and facetious. But it was also intelligent: For apart from the time-indexed meaning of the copula in the present tense, the “is” in “This is a ball” is different from that in “A ball is a spherical object.” The first sentence identifies a particular (or token) as a member of a class (or type), whereas the second offers a definition through the synonymy of types. The “is” in “it’s like” is neither of these, for it seeks to define a type — for example, “a ball” or “market segmentation” — by reference to a token. It does not even modify the definiendum directly.
There is a curious reluctance to think about the nature of things, maybe as a result of decades of teaching that there is no such nature apart from what one wants them to be. Rather, students increasingly see the world phenomenologically — as a haphazard arrangement of “stuff” and of events informed by the sensory impressions of their own experience but devoid of any structure.
Surveys show that the average American receives some 5,000 external stimuli per day and spends more than eight hours a day in front of screens — television, computer monitors, cellphones, gaming consoles, and so on. Where in earlier ages people worked in their gardens, played an instrument, went fishing, read books, entertained guests, or engaged in conversation with family or friends, they have become passive and speechless consumers of canned content. These screens help produce a people that is losing its language. But more importantly, these people no longer see structures in their world but rather a bewildering juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated events. Vicarious living and proxy experiences are the deeper problem with our students’ loss of language.
Of course, not all students are alike: Many do excel and emerge as active thinkers and thoughtful speakers. But as a society, we are a far cry from seeing the critical thinking that progressive educators want to convey. In order to think critically, one must be able to keep causes apart from effects, fact from interpretation, belief from knowledge, definitions from explanations, and much more. Critical thought requires determining the range of alternatives and applying to them a clear and consistent standard of evaluation.
But not only is such standard often amiss after years of indoctrination in relativism, even the range of alternatives is not clear. Understanding what scholastic philosophers have called the status quaestionis has become a challenge. Students often simply do not understand the nature (and grammar) of the question and match it with a fitting answer format. It is a problem of losing language and the ability to work with it logically, creatively, and yes, critically.
The problem with the loss of language must be identified at a profounder level yet. In our society, words have long lost their meaning and have become arbitrary sounds or icons. Sometimes the American penchant for pragmatism goes to absurd extremes — as when “entrée” is used not for a first course (or “entry” dish), as in the rest of the world, but for a main course; or when the political term “liberal” has come to be used in the opposite sense of its historical and proper meaning. Yet the vast majority of speakers — and even our intellectuals — will see nothing wrong with this, for they honestly believe that words only mean what we want them to mean.
The question of the natural or conventional nature of language is one of the oldest in philosophy, of course, and arguments on both sides have been bantered about since Plato. But has any society been so given to arbitrariness and to a redefinition of meaning at will as ours? From there, it is only a short way to redefining the meaning of marriage, family, torture, or the priesthood. Is this an instance of that “dictatorship of relativism” by which Pope Benedict XVI has characterized present-day Western culture?
In our society, the power of language has declined. How are students to understand the world of the Bible if curses, blessings, or vows are no longer understood as performative speech acts that have (often immediate) efficacy? How are they to deal with the Catholic view of sacraments, according to which the saying is a doing and brings about an ontological change in the world? How can they relate to the Word (Logos) not referring to or being a name for Christ but being God (Jn 1:1)? How can the greeting, “Peace to this house!” be such a “big deal” that it actually brings about peace (Lk 10:5-6)? How can students still appreciate classical pieces of literature that have protagonists who offer their lives for a promise made?
In most cases, what we say no longer matters much, for words have become cheapened. Qui perd sa langue, perd son âme aussi — “who loses one’s language also loses one’s soul,” the French say. And the Québecois have added: Qui perd sa langue, perd sa foi — “who loses one’s language also loses one’s faith.”
Why has American society suffered this degradation? There are, of course, several reasons. For one, pragmatism has become the common national religion. Students have constantly been told that there is no essence and meaning to things, and that they are only what they want themselves to be. They have been fed a heavy diet of relativism and indoctrination in one of the changing variants of collectivism — feminism, socialism, and nationalism being only the most prominent among them. They are taught what to “make” of themselves, how to “construct” an identity in a category that is politically desirable, but not to discover what — or rather who — they are and for which purpose they are in the world.
Who still takes the Gospel seriously: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt 12:36-37). Our university scholars will interpret such passages away according to “critical hermeneutics.” But our students are left speechless if they come across them at all.
The blame does not lie with students (although a bit of personal effort might surely be expected). It lies largely with two or more generations of indulgent and misguided educators and with the political guardians of education. Too often the “it’s like” phenomenon has been shrugged off. If educators, who are meant to carry the torch of literacy and learning, do not regard these developments as calls to action but dismiss them as a necessary by-product of benign cultural change — “You know, I’m not sure I could do it myself” — we suffer from a major dislocation. Our education then no longer has standards to which we educate, or if it does, they are not about outcomes measured in knowledge or skills. And it reveals rhetoric about “liberal education” as nothing but hot air.
Remember that, between the Greeks and the Renaissance, the purpose of the artes liberales was defined, the list of subjects was closed, and the books to be read changed little. Of course, at the tertiary level of education, it may be too late to find remedies for the loss of language, unless universities want to be transformed into high schools. The work has to be done in the formative years of students — in their earlier teens. Forget the renaming of secondary-school “English” into “Language Arts.” We need exercises in spelling, grammar, style, speech, rhetoric, and the classics.
The phrase “it’s like” itself seems, well, like a trifle. But it is a symptom of an underlying and more serious malaise: The loss of an ability to think clearly and express these thoughts perceptibly is no trifling matter. It makes our younger generation, and possibly those generations that succeed them, susceptible to boilerplate thinking and ultimately manipulation by others. A speechless society, or one that can no longer enunciate its will clearly and with a large register of distinctions, is reduced to an ant heap.


  • Wolfgang Grassl

    Wolfgang Grassl is Professor of Business Administration at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. His research and writing is on branding, marketing strategy, the ontology of business, and the Catholic intellectual tradition.

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