Top>Opinion>How Should We Stem the Decline in Linguistic Ability, Memory, and Imagination in Modern Society?

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Shuichi Kaganoi

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How Should We Stem the Decline in Linguistic Ability, Memory, and Imagination in Modern Society?

Shuichi Kaganoi
Professor of Linguistics, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University

How would you answer, if you were asked "What is language?" In my experience, most people who were asked this question have answered that it is a means of communication. Though this answer is correct, of course, such an idea actually conceals an extremely dangerous trap that causes us to fail in capturing the essence of language.

This idea apparently assumes that individuals think of something in their head first and then verbalize it secondarily to make others understand it. But is this premise correct? One might propose, rather that language has already intervened in our thought when we think of something in our brain, but such a proposition raises a thorny philosophical problem-i.e., whether or not thought exists without language.

Language is thought itself

It is often said that painters think in colors and musicians in sounds. Dogs and cats might also have their own thoughts. For all of us ordinary people, when we come across an obstacle in front of us, we must inevitably dodge it right away, and there is nothing unusual in regarding this as a kind of physical thought. Let's consider the matter a bit more, however. When we recall, for example, the fact that we ate curry and rice yesterday, is it possible to think of without using language?

Painters are able to depict themselves eating curry and rice. How should they express, however, the fact that the scene took place yesterday? While musicians may reproduce something akin to tastiness and piquancy in sounds, they are unlikely to be able to express the fact that it is curry that is tasty, or taste that is piquant-much less dogs and cats, needless to say.

In other words, temporal matters and the like cannot be considered with anything other than language. We cannot even conceive of concepts such as love and human rights without language. In short, all of our memory, history, and culture are established based on a vast aggregation of language. As such, language is far more than a mere means of communication, but rather, it is both a means of thinking as well as thought itself.

Degraded linguistic ability caused by convenient tools

What would happen if linguistic ability deteriorated? The answer is, of course, a decline in capacity for thought. While it is said recently that the linguistic ability of youth has deteriorated, it is not just a matter of young people. Surrounded by convenient tools such as computers, cell phones, and electric dictionaries, we all have probably given up learning letters, memorizing sentences, and trying to compose polished proses, as we are swept up in our hectic daily lives.

It is known that if you habitually compose texts using a computer, you often forget Chinese letters, because computers are very good at converting typed characters into Chinese letters. That is not all, however. If you have entered information into a computer, you may feel at ease because you can retrieve it anytime you want. Then you might become reluctant to learn many things. That is, you might suffer from I-entered-it-so-I-can-forget-it syndrome.

This is why students these days are lacking in their efforts to memorize things. For example, when they learn the basics of French, some of them even fail to memorize the conjugation of the verb être, which is the equivalent of the verb be in English. Such a decline in memory would also lead directly to deterioration in historical, spatial, and geographical awareness. As a result, even though we are in the middle of a period of globalization today, these students would post disastrous results if they were asked to list the countries and capitals of the world, the prefectures and capitals in Japan, and the order of the eras in history. In addition, because the Internet is the most suitable tool to solve small questions, in that it can find good answers as soon as you conduct a search, everyone uses less and less of their powers of reasoning and imagination.

Reading books-the perfect prescription for this endemic disease of modern society

To such young people, I might want to say "abandon the convenient tools and go out into the street," as Shuji Terayama, a Japanese dramatist, wrote. It never seems, however, that I can expect them to take it seriously, because they are totally addicted to their cell phones. As a last resort, I now make it a practice to recommend reading books at least in order to compensate for the gaps. After all, it is not uncommon these days to see university students having not read even a single book in the past year.

Reading books which only have printed words requires the powers of imagination and reasoning. Linguistic ability is required in the first place, and it is built gradually as you read books. The content in books spans all ages and cultures, with a plethora of material related to history and geography. There is no prescription as simple and effective as reading books for the endemic disease of modern society. If this society began to reject the proposal of reading books, that would be the very point of le commencement de la fin-or, the beginning of the end.

Shuichi Kaganoi
Professor of Linguistics, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Professor Kaganoi was born in Kochi City in 1950 and graduated from the Department of French Literature and Culture at the Faculty of Letters in Chuo University. He studied at the Graduate School in the University of Paris after graduating from the Graduate School of Letters in Chuo University. He specializes in French Literature, Contemporary Philosophy, Linguistics, and Media Studies. While studying Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Ferdinand de Saussure, he also specializes in Japanese Studies. Professor Kaganoi's publications include Merleau-Ponty: The Thought Inspires [Meruro-Ponti: Shokuhatsu suru Shiso] (Hakusuisha); Introduction to Linguistics in the 20th Century [20-seiki Gengogaku Nyumon] (Kodansha); Textbook for Intelligence: Saussure [Chi no Kyokasho: Soshuru] (Kodansha); The Japanese Language Evolves [Nihongo wa Shinka Suru] (Japan Broadcast Publishing); Restoration of the Japanese Language [Nihongo no Fukken] (Kodansha); Admonishing the Japanese Language [Nihongo wo Shikaru] (Chikumashobo); Merleau-Ponty and Language [Meruro-Ponti to Gengo] (Sekai Shoin); "Society Steeped in Sound" and the Japanese Culture ["Otozuke Shakai" to Nippon Bunka] (Kodansha), and many other books and translations.