Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Building language

It's been a while since I've posted and I'd love to say that I've been deep in a creative effort. And I have, sort of, but it's been a bricks and mortar kind of creative effort. It's the time of year when the weeds take over without some really intensive effort so I've been on my knees battling Bermuda grass (came up with a few new epithets - I suppose that's writing related) and getting landscaping in order. We were given two loads of fresh cedar mulch, too - just the smell conjures up images and stories start to dance around in the fragrance. And I do feel the creative juices start to stir as my yard has become filled with raised beds, climbing roses and gently curving walkways. Lovely.

But I did take time for a seminar of sorts. Not a new one but a fascinating one. My husband came into the studio one night and told me I had to listen to this. "It's a geek thing but I think you'll get it."

Now that alone was enough to pique my curiosity. There's not many geek things I "get." I'm a technodummy of the nth degree. So away I went.

The presentation is Guy Steele's keynote at the 1998 ACM OOPSLA conference (it's a computer thing). If you have a chance to watch it, it's fascinating both in concept and in construction. If you don't have time for the whole thing, I've put a few of my own thoughts below.

Did you watch any of it?


The premise of his talk is that he does not use words of more than one syllable unless he defines it first. (It takes him about 9 minutes to explain that.) And he does this for almost an hour!

As a writer, I found it to be a fascinating exercise. (Probably my background in linguistics plays a part too.) But particularly as a children's writer, I want to expose kids to fun and extended vocabulary but I must be careful to leave enough context or enough familiar language in the text so that my readers don't get lost. Just like the computer operates within a set of rules, so young readers are taught a set of rules to help "decode" the language they encounter. The more decoding they have to do, the harder it can be for them to grasp the story. I don't want them stuck with "small language" but must pace the growth too, so that the purpose is not overwhelmed by a language that is too complex too fast.

And so we build a language together as writers, teachers, parents and caregivers that work with children through reading and writing. And from that language come the images, ideas and worlds that we can revel in to accomplish big things.

I'd heartily recommend finding time to watch the whole thing.

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