The Loss of Language, Culture, & Relationships

The Loss of Language, Culture, & Relationships June 19, 2024

Language is what makes culture and all human relationships possible.  We are seeing a broad based decline in language–not only the loss of the ability to read and write, but the also the ability to speak, listen, communicate, comprehend, and think.  If we allow this trend to run its course–as we are beginning to do by letting Artificial Intelligence do our writing and our thinking for us–culture will be impossible and our very humanity will be at risk.

So argues Nadya Williams in her article for Providence entitled A People Without Culture: What the End of Reading Truly Means.  She cites an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the much-complained-about topic of how college students have become such poor readers.  But this one, “Is This The End of Reading?” by Beth McMurtrie, goes further, saying that students are increasingly unable to handle language and the tasks that require facility with language.

Williams, a classical historian, then gives a vivid evocation of ancient Greece before the dawn of literacy, when its oral culture enabled incredible feats of memory and extended attention spans, as when whole cities would come together to hear Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey recited from memory.  Then writing came, retaining and preserving much of the oral culture, while making possible new heights of learning and thinking.  Williams writes,

This brings us back full circle to the beleaguered college students whose inability to ingest information, whether written or oral, McMurtrie documents in her Chronicle piece. The students she describes decidedly don’t fit the characteristics of a written culture. The problem is, they don’t fit the characteristics of an oral culture either. Rather, powered by the latest modern technologies of smart phones and AI, they are steadily regressing to a pre-human state of cognition. Unable to receive sophisticated information in any form at all, what is left for them? Profound anxiety and loneliness.

This loss of culture, both oral and written, has significant implications for how any human society, let alone a democracy, functions. How do you communicate with other flesh and blood people with neither the ability to read nor listen deeply? This is a civilization-destroying kind of crisis. Without the possibility of deep, meaningful communication across society, there will be fewer deep friendships, fewer relationships, less healthy marriages, and more intergenerational strife as communication between parents and  children becomes harder. There will be less collaboration beyond our immediate circles. All of these activities rely on effective speaking and listening, on remembering information, on understanding people and their ideas, on holding multiple ideas in one’s mind and discerning patterns or conflicts between them.

A “pre-human state of cognition”?  I’m not sure what that is.  Is she saying that we are starting to think like animals?

Despite that evocation of evolution–or, rather, devolution–Williams is a Christian, who emphasizes the centrality of the Word of God; that is, God’s language, through which He reveals Himself

There is significance, as the early Christians knew well, to the idea of God as Word that became flesh. Words can be transcendent. Words are how God communicates with us—especially, today, through the written word. And words, written or spoken, are how we express our love for God and for other people. Without them, we lose not only culture, but our very humanity.

Indeed, this loss of humanity that is unfolding in front of our very eyes is only further abetted by the hollow solutions readily available. Can’t find a real person to date? AI girlfriends are here for you. Can’t make friends on your own? AI friends to the rescue. Can’t do the reading to write your college papers or job application letters? You guessed it, yet again, AI can do it.

But the nature of human beings as flesh and blood made in God’s image insists on this truth: We have been created for relationship—first and foremost with God, but also with other people. And so, the solution for the literacy crisis in our society can only be relational.

That is to say, talk with each other.  Listen to each other.  Try to comprehend each other.  Read.  Read with each other.  Write and let other people read what you have written.  Read the Bible and listen to the Bible being read.  In response to God’s Word, pray with your words.  Take to heart what the Book of Proverbs says about words, good ones and bad ones.  Recover language.


Illustration by Ghozt Tramp, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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