Next to the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence may be the single most important document ever created in the history of America. It established our country’s formal separation from England and set in motion more than two centuries of global influence and an example of how a free republic can succeed.
But what would have happened if the men who founded our country lacked the basic language skills to create that first, all-important document? How would these men have properly and so effectively communicated the displeasure and intent of an entire people without such a firm grasp on the English language, not merely to speak it but to put it down in a document to be revered for centuries to come? In short, they couldn’t have.
On this 238th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we need to remember that it’s author had but two years of formal, college education. In those days, a man wishing to become a lawyer apprenticed under other attorneys, reading the law and learning to interpret and apply it for the good of the people for whom it was put in place. Jefferson eventually became a lawyer but not by obtaining any degree we might understand today.
Likewise, Benjamin Franklin went to school briefly but, because of financial issues, he had to stop to help support his family by going to work with his father. He furthered his own education, however, through reading and self-study, a practice that is, sadly, frowned upon today. Both of these men demonstrated the vast important of language and writing, and how the written word can change history. Some people, though, struggle with language skills or never learn to read at all.
One of my favorite books from childhood was called, “The Little Old Man Who Could Not Read,” by Irma Black. The book chronicles the story of a little, old toy maker who, despite his amazing craftsmanship for pleasing children, never learned to read. One day, his wife went to visit a sick friend and left him alone for what must have been the first time. He was forced to do the grocery shopping on his own, which turned out to be a very frustrating endeavor. Upon arriving home, he sadly discovered that what he thought was a spaghetti box turned out to be wax paper and the can of sauce, coffee instead. It was very disheartening. But it motivated him to learn and he did. The book was written many years before the technology age, but imagine what he would have to deal with today if he couldn’t read at all? It would be nearly debilitating in modern American culture.
I have always been a writer, even back into childhood, but most of my language skills came from audio books and those children’s books that came with a 33 rpm record. I found later that I had been dealing with a learning disability that hindered my ability to retain what I had read. Over the years, I adjusted and coped, but was not diagnosed until my mid-30s. Today, I have new ways of dealing with the problem and read as much as I can. I learned to defy my disability because I wanted to read.
There’s no question that Jefferson and Franklin were above-average men, but we all have the ability to move past our limitations, just as Franklin taught himself what he needed to know and just as I worked past my reading issues. For those who want to improve their language skills across the board, here are a few tips and they work for pretty much all ages.
First, try to write as much by hand as possible. Using paper and pen will slow you down a bit and force you to think before you write. People were better writers in the old days because it took time to get thought to page. Today, technology has us whizzing through sentences without a thought to grammar and word usage.
Next, although it’s fallen out of favor with the public school set, use cursive writing as much as you can. As with the first point, handwriting something makes you think and use the right language. It even gives you the chance to look up a word before you use it.
Try to learn a new word every day. Vocabulary is the key to better language skills. Take the time to look up words you hear throughout your normal day. But if you don’t hear any that grab your attention, pick up a hard-bound dictionary, open it up, close your eyes, and point to a word on the page. That’s your word for the day. One of those “word of the day” desk calendars is a great resource too. Of course, you need to put the word into use whenever possible to make it stick.
Read, read, read, read. And, did I mention, read? Newspapers, well-written blogs, congressional briefs, comic books, it doesn’t matter what you read, just make sure you read a lot. If you’re trying to improve your language skills, however, the more advanced the reading the better. It’s ok if it takes time, look up words you don’t know and charge ahead.
Finally, don’t write like you text. In fact, don’t text how you text, either. The wave of “texting shorthand” is maddening to those of us with good grammar and language skills. Use full words and sentences – even in texts. It’ll make a big difference in how you communicate in email and in other written documents as well. Take your time and say it right.
So this Fourth of July weekend, go out and enjoy the picnics and fireworks. But remember, when you hear the words to the national anthem or the preamble to the constitution, think about the meaning of each word and be grateful that those guys were diligent enough to get every one of them right. Our very freedom depended on it.