Is written language an unrecognized language of thought?

Written by: David Olson


Implausible as it may seem, while all speakers of a language have knowledge of language, they often have little knowledge about language. Their knowledge of their spoken language, remains, as we say, implicit, unavailable to consciousness.

A literate education is largely responsible for making that implicit knowledge explicit, something to think about. And that, the Mind on Paper argues, is important for reflective, critical thinking.

The cognitive sciences are devoted to the study of the mind. My book is an attempt to bring writing and its uses into the cognitive sciences by advancing a literate theory of thinking. Whereas spoken language has long been recognized as central to the study of the mind, writing has been largely overlooked and its nature and significance unrecognized.

Advancing a cognitive theory of writing is important for both theoretical and practical reasons. Failing to recognize the cognitive significance of writing and literacy for human development, researchers increasingly turn to the brain sciences, information technology, as well as genetic and cultural factors rather than to the educational effects of learning to think about language, a skill that depends in large part on literacy. Practically, the lack of an understanding of the cognitive implications of writing lead to a misplaced emphasis on reading as a skill rather than on writing as an instrument of thinking.

The central claim of the book, supported by empirical evidence, is that writing plays its unique role through the acquisition of a language about language; a metalanguage that brings aspects of language into consciousness. This metalanguage is important not only in learning to read and write, but also in developing the norms and standards for reasoning against which thoughts and arguments can be judged, revised, and sometimes rejected. Hence, the theory offers a new perspective on and a justification for the Language Arts in the educational curriculum.

Enjoyed reading this article? Share it today:

About the Author: David Olson

David R Olson is University Professor Emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is author or editor of 20 books, including The Mind on Paper, and more that 300 articles on cognition, language and literacy. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the National Academy of Education (US), and he ...

View the Author profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!