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In a neat twist, the first step to becoming a sematurgist (which does not preclude being anything else) is to ponder the word “semanturgy.”

To consciously wonder at the significance of something, to be aware of meaning, its use, purpose, flow, malleability, value, this is the spot where we begin: to step off the path of unconscious assumption, to open one’s eyes, one’s ears, one’s heart.

The second step is to realize that someone is attempting to construct a message, to include that person’s awareness, as best one can, in the interpretation, to realize that the message is never set in stone, even if it’s carved in granite, because with each passing moment and mind the meaning will shift slightly in its focus and intent.

The third step is to keep in mind that the act of manipulating meaning, whether from the giving or the receiving end, requires the acceptance of responsibility for the consequences generated by the communication.  As we exchange meaning we share a deep level of commitment to each other as social creatures.

The fourth step is up to you.  

Semanturgy is not a dogma, not a doctrine, not a prescription.  It is a way of thinking, a reminder to be aware, a validation of an individual’s right to communication.  It is simply a place to put your foot to take that first step to real connection through truth.  It is an encouraging word urging you to participate, to work your own meaning into the great conversation that is human life.

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In essence, all words are code words.  We have designated every sound/letter combination to indicate some meaning or other… the question is, do we always agree on precisely what that meaning is?

Every once in a while I run across the perfect illustration of this dilemma.  The one I found last night happened to be in The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh” by A. A. Milne:

“The best way,” said Rabbit, “would be this.  The best way would be to steal Baby Roo and hide him, and then when Kanga says, ‘Where’s Baby Roo?’ we say, ‘Aha!‘ “

Aha!” said Pooh, practising.  “Aha!  Aha! … Of course,” he went on, “we could say ‘Aha!’ even if we hadn’t stolen Baby Roo.”

“Pooh,” said Rabbit kindly, “you haven’t any brain.”

“I know,” said Pooh humbly.

“We say ‘Aha!’ so that Kanga knows that we know where Baby Roo is.  ‘Aha!‘ means ‘We’ll tell you where Baby Roo is, if you promise to go away from the Forest and never come back.’  Now don’t talk while I think.”

Pooh went into a corner and tried saying “Aha!” in that sort of voice.  Sometimes it seemed to him that it did mean what Rabbit said, and sometimes it seemed to him that it didn’t.  “I suppose it’s just practice,” he thought.  “I wonder if Kanga will have to practice too so as to understand it.”

Indeed.

Do you like your name?  What does it mean to you?  Is it merely a method of identification, of no more import than if you had a number?

I was named after my father’s sister who had passed away when she was 5, so it was quite significant, I believe, that his family got to use the name again after so many difficult years had gone by.  

But I never liked the name.  “Diane.”  I take that back; I think it is a fine name, but it never felt right for me.  I always balked at being called that name.  It felt wrong, somehow.  My middle name was “Elena,” after the song “Maria Elena,” and I always loved it.  I would sign my name “Diane E. Horton” and hope that someone would ask me what the “E” stood for.  I remember telling my mother many times that I wanted to change my name to my middle name, but it never happened.  Until I was 21, and I decided that, even though I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, I really could not stand going through my entire life with a name I didn’t feel suited for.  When I went to the DMV and changed my name, after having gone through the entire legal process, they tried to put me down as “AKA “Diane…” and I said, No!  I’m done with that name, I paid my money and I filled out my paperwork, I don’t want to have to deal with it anymore.

When we name our children, most of us think long and hard and finally decide on something that we hope will be a positive designation of their individuality and personhood.

But of course, it’s not a guarantee that it will fit.  My daughter didn’t like “Willow” and decided to change her name to “Rose” when she was 4.  Considering my own experience, I had to go along with her decision.  So far, the other three are content with the names they got, so I’m batting .750.

One of my last names, “Margo,” I took when I was 25.  I was in the middle of an unconventional, difficult marriage, and I was quite done defining myself through men.  My mother’s name is “Marguerite,” as is her mother’s, and my other grandmother’s name is “Marian,” so I took the first letters of the first names of the women of my family (because if I’d taken one of their maiden names, it would have been another man’s name, wouldn’t it have?) and I took on “Margo.”  For several years my name felt, finally, as though it fit who I really was.

I added “Gould” when I got married to a man of the same name because it meant a lot to him, and because it meant a lot to me to be identified as a part of his life.  At first I thought it would be awkward, and indeed, there is no government office or any other type of bureaucratic institution that can fit their head around someone having two last names, but in spite of that, legally I have no middle name but two last names.  And now it feels as though my name not only fits my person, but that it accurately reflects who I am and what is meaningful to me in this world.

How many people can say that?  How many people go through life with a name they can’t stand, for whatever reason, but suffer through because it is just goofy to be so self-indulgent as to change your name and make people call you something different?

I must say, to anyone considering such a move, it is well worth the trouble.

Let’s face it, there are two kinds of people studying foreign languages today in our elementary and secondary educational institutions as well as in our colleges and universities: people who want to and people who are required to. 

The people who want to learn another language, who drool at the sight of a new vocabulary list and spend hours cross-referencing words in various dictionaries, these wonderful souls do not need much in the way of curriculum.  You could use the oldest, lamest textbook in the world and they would eat it up.  Being one of these languages nerds myself, I know that when I am gathering resources for a class and I want to serve this population, I am looking for any and all types of fun stuff.  The materials do not have to be perfectly organized or tantalizingly arranged, because we are going to joyfully dive into it no matter what.

The other group of language students is another story when it comes to curriculum development. An instructor must always have an eye towards inspiring the reluctant student to realize, if not the joy, at least the utility of the language being acquired.

To this end, I propose that an approach based in sematurgy would be beneficial, both more engaging for students as well as resulting in a greater long term retention of the material.

A language education based on working with meaning would mean that everything would be relevant to actual usage. Students would work with dialogues, music and film for oral production and comprehension, and for reading and writing there would be texts and assignments that related to the students’ personal lives and connect them to the lives of their counterparts speaking the acquired language.

Many of the latest textbooks I have seen do include this type of material, but there is still a large focus on grammar, conjugation and similar types of technical aspects of language. While I would never suggest that these are not vital to a complete understanding of a language, I would state that I do not believe they are necessary for the kinds of introductory language studies we find required for high school diplomas and Bachelor of Arts degrees. I believe they can be left out of these basic language courses and addressed in the intermediate and advanced language studies for those who actually want to pursue a deeper mastery of the language.

Let me briefly present my reasoning behind this: I believe that time spent concentrating on memorizing nitpicky grammar like verb conjugations, for these folks who don’t really want to be studying language, is completely wasted. Even if they manage to memorize it for an exam, they will immediately put it out of their brain and it will never be recalled again. Better for them to spend that time working with meaningful dialogues, lyrics, or texts in which popular verbs will be repeated enough times that they will become stuck in their minds and they will be able to be remembered and used at a future time. Better that the student can walk away with the ability to have basic conversations with people who may one day be encountered than to be able to recite verbs in the subjunctive.

Better still that they spend this time learning about the culture and history of the people who speak the particular language being studied, because isn’t that the major reason given for requiring foreign language study? To be exposed to another way of life?.

Of course, there will certainly be occasions when a discussion of verbs or grammar will become relevant, but it will be brief and presented merely as a tool to accomplish the task at hand. The grammar in a sematurgy-based introductory language education will be acquired mostly unconsciously, similar to the way we acquire the rules of our native language in the natural way before we study them formally later on. We will follow the same non-method as little children learning their first words; a toddler learns the significance of “cookie” and “park” and “no” because they are intensely meaningful.

If we work with what is meaningful to the students and present the acquired language in these terms, whether it is music, society, current events, relationships or any other subject, they will learn important things about the other language-speakers that will deepen their world perspective and they will also retain relevant parts of the language, like basic conversational skills, that will actually be useful in their future lives.

These reluctant students may still never experience the joy of becoming fluent in another language, but they will at least integrate basic, useful parts of that language into the knowledge base they develop by interacting with the world in a personal, meaningful way, and so the language will be for them what language should be: a vital tool of authentic communication.

When you study a second (or third or fourth) language, there comes a point in your conversational ability where you stop trying to translate everything you hear and say into and out of your native language. The words of this new language become directly linked into meaning, and when you mean something, suddenly an approximation of this meaning comes immediately out of your mouth using sounds and inflections that you did not know how to use at one time in your past. 

 I am fluent in three languages, and at one point I had a conversation with a neighbor who was also trilingual. It was one of the most wonderful conversations I’d ever had: his native language was Spanish, mine English, and we both were fluent in French. Still, we did not know every word in our non-native languages, so when we began to stumble, we would switch spontaneously into another language. We used all three languages without any real regard to which one we were speaking or hearing, just switching as it felt necessary, rather than pause to search for the word.

That night I had a dream in which I was speaking to a few people in an informal setting, and I had the clear awareness that no specific set of sounds, no verbal code was coming out of anyone’s mouth, although we were talking. We were exchanging meaning in its essential state. That is all I can tell you about it, except to say that it was really cool. Ironically, I have no other words to describe the sensation.

But the feeling that meaning is a kind of substance, albeit a quite slippery one, has stayed with me, and I can recall it at will. It is like the sun in that it illuminates the world, but it is difficult to stare at directly.

It is a resource that we waste with our thoughtless habits, our assuming natures, our rote and inattentive interactions with others. There are surely other ways to become aware of its existence besides learning a new code with which to express it, but language education is certainly a good trigger. In my next post I will discuss the way in which meaning should form the foundation of language education