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Raising Literacy Part 8:
Education in the Common Tongue

by Bill Lauritzen

You might recall the fact from mathematics that pi is equal to the circumference of a circle divided by the radius. Perhaps you have never had any use for this fact. Or perhaps you didn’t care to remember it, as it brought back painful memories of school, tests, and quizzes.

Instead, what if I drew a circle and said that the “around” of the circle (showing you what I meant by “around”) divided by the “across” of the circle (showing you what I meant by “across”) were the same for any circle. And that we called this number pi. You might find this fact a lot more palatable.

In fact, I taught mathematics for many years to many different students, and I found that “around” divided by “across” communicates the concept of pi much easier and better.

That is because the words “around” and “across” are from what I call our common tongue. I have found that you can teach science, history, English, in fact, every subject in the common tongue, and with better results. The common tongue is the language we spoke as children. “Circumference” and “diameter” are from Latin and are not normally used by children in their everyday play activities. They don’t say, “I put the belt on the circumference of my waist.” They don’t say, “I threw the ball the diameter of the circle.” They use “around” and “across.” Even thought “around” and “across” don’t have exact meanings for the circle, they can easily be given these exact meanings.

I believe that use of the common tongue will lead to greater application. My theory (which might be called the Common Tongue Application Theory) is that our common English tongue, the tongue of childhood play, is more intimately linked to activity, to motion, to action than the tongue of the school classroom.

In school, the Latin, or French, or Greek words (the Pedantic Tongue) are learned, as these languages were once the languages of learning. For example, in England, in 1686, Isaac Newton wrote Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in Latin. However, Latin is no longer the language of learning. English is. “Circumference” and “diameter” and a host of other words are really imports.

Thus, our students, in a sense, are having to learn a foreign language in order to understand much of “higher” education.

Unfortunately, these imported words are often only memorized. They are not often linked to real word activities. One can attempt to link them by having the child do projects, manipulate things, make things, etc.

But even if the student does link “circumference,” through these various kinesthetic experiences to the real world, I believe circumference has to displace the word “around” to some degree and that this causes some internal stress. So if someone sees the word “circumference,” they might have to think for a moment, what is “circumference?” There is a little bit of translation going on here. Because of their many early childhood experiences, they would not have to think much about the word “around” or “across,” if these words were used with the circle.

What if all our subjects used common words from our childhood (words that were granted more exact meanings)? This has been done to some degree already. The subject of biology is now often called “life science.” Geology is often now called “earth science.” In earth science we have the “Ring of Fire.” These are steps, perhaps inevitable, in the right direction.

What if the respiratory systems were the “breathing system”? Sounds unscholarly, I know. But easier, yes. Useful, yes. Practical, yes.
What if a thermometer was a “heat gauge”?
What if viscosity was “thickness”?
If the earth’s rotation was the earth’s “spin”?
If the radius were the “spoke”?
If spheres were “balls”?

We might have to use hyphens at times: What if the circulatory systems were the “blood-flow system,” if the reproductive system where the “baby-making system.” Perhaps igneous rocks should be “fire-formed” rocks? Perhaps frequency should be “how-often”? Perhaps accelerate should be “speed-change” (fewer syllables, believe it or not). Perhaps a force should be a “push-or-pull”?

We might have to make up new words at times, such as I have done in math, where an icosahedron is a “12-nook," and a hexagon is a “6-nik.” Believe me, this makes life a heck of a lot easier on the math student and math teacher.

Other subjects besides math and science can also benefit. What if biography were “life-story,” if the climax were the “high-point,” if the prologue were “first-talk?” If synonyms were “mean-sames” and homonyms were “mean-sames”? If capitalization were “big-lettering”? If a conjunction were a “joiner”? What if democracy were “people-rule” and a monarchy were “king-rule?”

(There are many other examples and I have started to compile a list. If you have some suggestions send them to me at my web site: Earth360.com.)

Sure, the grammar isn’t always perfect, but who cares? It won’t be the first time that adjectives have been made to serve as nouns or vice-versa.

If we all used common words, I think we would have a lot less memorization and a lot more application. I believe if we educated our children using “around” and “across,” they would naturally apply the concept of pi in their adult lives, and would not shy away from the concept because of painful memories, thinking pi is “too intellectual,” or having to stop to make a mental translation. One of the biggest complaints of industry is that they hire graduates that can’t apply what they have studied. Using these common words can change that.

The use of common English words in the place of Latin words probably offends some people. The common words do not sound intelligent. That’s because we have learned that school has to do with Latin, Greek, or French sounding words that one memorizes. However, should we be more concerned with understanding and application or with “sounding intelligent”?

So scoff if you like, “scholar.” But ask yourself this question: Am I a bookish, boring person, or am I a dynamic person who applies knowledge? Perhaps school could be a heck of lot less easier than it is. Perhaps subjects are not really that difficult. Perhaps the emperor has no clothes.

There is one disadvantage to using common words. One would not be able to learn Latin, French, and Greek so easily. Those languages would be more foreign to us. But most of the Greek, Latin, and French people have to learn English anyway, as it is now the language of science, commerce, and diplomacy.

Let’s forget the pedantry, the sophistry, the snobbishness, and “sounding intelligent.” Let’s be intelligent by making subjects more user-friendly. Let’s understand and apply subjects. Let’s educate in the common tongue and raise literacy.

Part 8 of a series on raising literacy by William Earth. He holds a master’s degree in Industrial Psychology/Ergonomics and has studied education for over 15 years. He can be reached via his internet site: www.earth360.com.