An Interlude: What do we mean when we say learning something is unnatural?

In our last post in a series exploring the question, “What is (un)natural about learning to read and write?,” we looked at a paper from 1980 by Phillip Gough and Michael Hillinger, Learning to Read: An Unnatural Act, that provided a counter to Ken and Yetta Goodman’s argument that learning to read is natural, and provided us with a useful analogy: learning to read an alphabetic writing system is a form of cryptanalysis. Using this analogy, Gough and Hillinger drew out a fine-grained distinction between a code and a cipher that allowed them to make some precise observations about the difficulty of breaking the alphabetic cipher that have held up quite well over the years.

Yet there were some interesting parallels between the Goodmans’ and G&H’s accounts: 1) they both agreed that the initial process of learning to read in a literate environment is naturally facilitated by associative learning, and 2) that learning to break the written code can’t be taught directly.

At the root of our exploration has been the question of what it is, exactly, that is natural or unnatural about literacy. The Goodmans go whole hog into the belief that literacy development is natural, and thus claim that direct instruction on letter-sound correspondences is artificial — and thus detrimental. G&H, on the other hand, claim that gaining phonemic awareness (what they termed ‘metaphonological awareness’) and breaking the cipher of letter-sound correspondences is unnatural, and thus requires quite a bit of explicit instruction to get anywhere near to breaking the code.

I think the Goodmans are right in the sense that there is much about learning oral language that can inform learning written language, that the two are deeply and inseparably interconnected, and that the socio-cultural environment and motivation of children are critical components of reading. I think G&H are right that the alphabetic principle, and the ability to distinguish and pick apart phonemes in a spoken word and put them back together in the letter-sequences of a written word, are forged atop an artificial construction (in the sense of a human created technology). Yet I’m not entirely convinced that learning to read is exactly unnatural. We could say that riding a bike is unnatural, or climbing a ladder is unnatural, or drinking out of a man-made cup is unnatural, because such activities are based on artificial constructions. The distinction between them in terms of learning is their complexity of operation: it’s more complex to learn to ride a bike vs. drink out of a cup. Is one more unnatural than another? I don’t know if these are the greatest examples, I’m riffing here, but I think you can see what I mean. When we say something is unnatural in relation to learning, is this just shorthand for saying its more abstract or complex, and hence more difficult?

To take another spin on this, would we say running for long distances is natural? It’s been claimed that our ancestors evolved to run long distances in order to hunt. And yet, to become one who runs long distances regularly requires quite a bit of running. I am one of those people who actually enjoys it — but I well remember how difficult it was to adapt my body when I first began in high school cross country close to 30 years ago (oh dear, I’m dating myself). It only became easier after my circulatory and respiratory system and muscles adapted after a couple months of long distance running– and then it started feeling pretty good (I can even remember the very day, when my running buddy turned to me after a run, when we normally would be griping about how much it sucked, and was like, “this is kind of weird, but I actually feel good!”) And so long as I don’t let too much time pass in between runs, it keeps feeling pretty good. But isn’t that just like learning to read? Or learning to ride a bike? Or playing an instrument? Or pretty much anything that’s challenging? We have to develop a certain level of foundational fluency before a new skill becomes something we can more fully wield with satisfaction and effect. And some of us tend to be more “naturally” good at some things than others (a point we’ll come back to later).

The counter to my riffing here, of course, is: well, why is learning a native language so swift, innate, and effortless from infancy for most, while learning its written form is so very much more arduous, such that many never even fully acquire it?

In our next post, we’ll explore a paper from Alvin Liberman that goes deeper into the argument that written language is unnatural in comparison to spoken language. Let’s see if we’re convinced. . .

4 responses to “An Interlude: What do we mean when we say learning something is unnatural?”

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