Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The meaning of meaning

I’ve always had trouble with English teachers, primary school teachers, advisers, lecturers and the like who talked about children ‘making meaning’. I still hear it now occasionally but did a lot in the 70s and 80s and indeed there were books and articles with the expression in the title. Those who used it may have known what they meant but I never thought I did, which makes me think, still, that it was a mystificatory idea that served to conceal confusion.

Previously, people had only used the term ‘meaning’ in phrases like ‘the meaning of so-and-so’. As for ‘meanings’ plural, you got it in ‘word meanings’ and expressions like that -- ‘words and their meanings’ -- but never, I think, in isolation. Meanings were pretty well what you could find in the dictionary.

So what were these meanings that children were supposed to making? Well, I suppose they were the meanings of their written and spoken utterances or improvised dramatic actions, since it was always in relation to language or drama that the expression was used. There seemed to be a whole implicit theory in this way of speaking, that ‘behind’ the language was a non-language something that either preceded the utterance (less preferred version) or was precipitated by the utterance, in the course of speaking.

Well, then. First: if that was the implicit theory, it seems to have huge implications and needed spelling out -- and I don’t think it ever was. If it wasn’t, then ‘meanings’ were just a placeholder, like an algebraic x, for whatever the language or gesture meant, in the usual sense. It’s the implication that there’s some separate entity that children are making, to which language etc may be contributory in production but finally inessential, to which I object. Or rather, I object to the undeclared smuggling in, as if it’s unproblematic, of such a vast notion about the constitution of ideas.

I once took ages working in detail, in an effort to understand it, through the final chapter of Vygotsky’s Thought and Language, the classic source of insights into this area, and concluded that I didn’t understand it and that it was either seriously defective in failing to explain some essentials or was incoherent. Vygotsky can’t be blamed: he was dying and in a rush. But I've never found what to turn to by way of a satisfactory modern (post-1935!) treatment of the problem and I remain seriously confused.

As others surely must be, but I don’t hear much worry being expressed. The issue is almost never addressed in any contemporary writings on the teaching of English, for any theory of which one would have thought some account of language and thought would be essential. Essential, too, to an evaluation of how important the much-celebrated ‘multimodality’ is: is the role of visual media, for instance, in ‘making meanings’ as significant as that of language? on that depends (in part) the weight that should be given to it in education -- and how much time should go to media studies.

1 comment:

Mary-Jane said...

Pete, I so enjoy your blog. Thank you!
Greetings from Hong Kong ... Mary