Text to Speech (and back again) – Media in Education

This paper explores some readings and questions I’ve been working on for quite awhile. What is the relation of present-day educational media and technologies to the most basic and fundamental media of communication: text and speech?

Unlike the forms that we usually associate with educational technology and educational media today, there is a wide-ranging history and mythology belonging to text and speech as forms of communication. The origin of Speech goes back to pre-history, and the beginnings of writing constitute a kind of vanishing point for the start of history itself. (Pictured to the right is the legendary, four-eyed minister Cangjie who is said to have invented writing in China –and whose name now designates a system of input used in Chinese computers and cell phones.)

This paper begins with a brief survey of the mythology behind text and speech; it goes on to explore two dominant traditions (referenced in an earlier posting here)  that connect these with more recent media innovation. These two traditions are the rationalist and the romantic.

I believe that of the two, the romantic is the most relevant today. Although it can be traced back to Rousseau’s privileging of the “natural” language and culture of the child, this tradition today connects childhood and early language learning with technological proficiency. This is illustrated in Prensky’s notion of “digital natives” (based on an analogy between technology and “unaccented, natural” childhood language learning). This tradition also includes the work of Papert and Shank, who insist that all learning should be like “learning to talk” –learning without explicitly being taught. It extends more broadly to those who believe that a type of  “natural,” informal learning (evident in early childhood) needs to be leveraged throughout education.

I think that writing, however, points to a different type of learning. This learning that follows the structure  and pedagogy implied in the written sign, rather than that of the spoken word. The written sign is artificial; it relates arbitrarily to the sounds of speech that (unlike text) we learn “naturally.” These written signs have to be recognized and manipulated as arbitrary pieces, not as entire units that are meaningful and useful in and of themselves. In short, they have to be taught; they imply a kind of learning that relies on artificial rewards and conditions. This is the kind of learning familiar to us from the traditional classroom, rather than one that occurs in infancy or early childhood.

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