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I learned to read when my older sisters returned from elementary school and practiced with our family. I remember sitting on the left side of my mom, fingers running over pictures of ladybugs and small golden dogs, while my sister sat on her right side and read the story aloud. She could read more words than I could, but I was getting there. By the time I was 9, I hid books under my bed and pulled them out in the middle of the night to read one more chapter. By the time I was 18, packing my things for college, I puzzled over what to do with my floor-to-ceiling, overflowing bookshelf. Everything I read became a part of my identity, and everything I could keep (or steal) became a member of the sprawling crowd of voices that eventually converged into my own. 

When you look up the key features of a civilization, most historians agree that a group of people must implement a system of writing in order to be “civilized.” Reading makes us human.

But what if I told you that humans were never meant to read in the first place? Our brains come hard-wired with the ability to hear and speak language (from a place called Wernicke’s area in the temporal lobe) and the ability to understand and remember symbols (the parietal lobe). There is no specific area in the brain that is meant to read; that’s why children have to be taught to read, and why some people have an easier time learning than others. Every time a reader starts a new story, they are taking advantage of a system that is both brand-new and generations in the making. As humans evolved, our brains learned to combine the use of multiple regions and a process called neuronal recycling to “repurpose” the skills we already have. It’s a miracle. 

Reading a new book, learning a new language, and even speaking our own language to communicate with friends and loved ones are the results of a multifaceted, living system. Learning that reading and writing are far from natural changed the way I read my favorite books. As a writer, I can treat myself with more patience knowing the lengths to which my brain has gone so I have the chance to write anything at all. As a reader, I value every word more knowing that it has traveled through countless geographical locations and definitions so it can hold that exact spot in one specific sentence.

The reading list below is a selection of works that explain in more depth how we got to where we are today — an age when literacy is not just considered an essential skill but an outlet for escapism, obsession, and self-expression. Spoiler alert: This process hasn’t finished yet. For as long as we read and write, our brains and our language influence one another and adapt to the literary climate. It is our gift to not only learn how this process takes place but to take advantage of the positive changes it could make for ourselves and our society.

Your Brain on Books: You Are What You Read (Maryanne Wolf, Tufts Magazine, Summer 2007)

Wolf is the author of many books about reading, including Proust and the Squid and Reader, Come Home. Although she works as a neuroscientist at the University of California San Francisco, she has a gift for explaining complicated processes like neuronal recycling to audiences unfamiliar with high-brow academic jargon. This essay speaks to book lovers, analyzing the process that allows readers to “step into another person’s clothes.” Wolf explains how this experience, at first appearing straightforward, is actually the product of several different parts of your brain (semantic and grammatical systems) working together to attach symbols to words. When we mature as readers, the cognitive process expands and we begin to feel what we read, truly “living” through words. As it turns out, Wolf reveals, the long process that has led to symbol comprehension is only just the beginning.

Human beings invented reading, and it took them thousands of years of cognitive breakthroughs to go from simple markings called tokens to text encoded in writing systems like Sumerian, Chinese, or the Greek alphabet. Reading has expanded the ways we are able to think and altered the cultural development of our species; still, it is a wholly learned skill, one that effects deep and lasting neurological changes in the individual.

Words on the Brain (Bartholomew Pawlik, Lateral, April 2016)

“Living” in literature changes us emotionally, but the effects of reading fiction at a close level are apparent cognitively, too. Here, Pawlik pulls together a variety of sources that discuss and interrogate what happens to us when we read fiction. Does literature actually pose a benefit to society beyond the individual route of escapism? Summaries of various cognitive studies reveal that reading does activate parts of the brain that are involved in interpreting social cues. More than that, Pawlik interrogates these effects on a societal level. Fiction readers are more tolerant, more empathetic, and even more likely to accept new technologies like robots. 

A study, conducted by Martina Mara and Markus Appel, looked at whether science fiction can change our feelings towards robots. They had people read either a science fiction story or a non-fiction pamphlet, before interacting with a human-like robot. The participants who read the sci-fi story reported reduced feelings of eeriness, which didn’t occur when people read the same information in the form of a leaflet. This led the authors to suggest that science fiction “may provide meaning for otherwise unsettling future technologies.”

An In-Depth Exploration of the Neuroscience of Language Learning (Saga Briggs, Berlitz, January 2022)

But what happens to your brain if you’re not one to sit and binge-read novels? Even though understanding, interpreting, and speaking language are natural parts of our brains, something magical still happens when we learn to speak a new language. Saga Briggs writes about how people who recently learned a language show increased activity in the parts of their brains responsible for auditory processing, memory, and grammatical comprehension. Here, Briggs lays out a step-by-step process: what happens to your brain as you learn a new language, how we measure language learning, and what this means for new language-learners. It takes a lot of the scare away from learning a new language, and for us monolingual speakers out there, it helps us appreciate just how wonderful it is that we know one language already — and what the benefits could be of two. 

There’s an important lesson to be gleaned from the neuroscience of language learning, then, one we can keep in mind as we tackle our next target language: our brains are adaptable, and we can trust them to take on the challenge.

Inside the Bilingual Writer (Erik Gleibermann, World Literature Today, May 2018)

In this beautiful examination of the multiple faces of writing, Erik Gleibermann interviews eight bilingual writers about their writing processes and the writing relationship between their mother tongue and their adopted one. 

Gleibermann explores the universe of the bilingual writer in this essay, bringing to light the way that bilingual writers use variations in tongue to resurface childhood memories or imply a tone of sexual whimsy. This piece also examines the reality of the bilingual writer in the Trump-administration era and upper-level American academia, during which times many bilingual writers were encouraged to silence their backgrounds and write only in English. In the end, though, bilingual writers support and inspire one another. Even if they speak (and write) completely different languages, they form an “extended family” that welcomes everyone’s stories.

Traveling back and forth can be a journey of both reconciliation and conflict.

In living this duality, these writers voice the daily experience of many bilingual immigrants around the world who are cooking breakfast, attending staff meetings, posing questions in class, and buying the week’s groceries. Collectively, bilingual writers play a formative cultural role in the United States, reflecting the lives of a growing community.

The Secret Lives of Words (John McWhorter, The New York Times, January 2023)

Outside of the human experience, though, even language itself is constantly evolving. Or rather, it is evolving because of the human experience, just as we’ve seen how reading changes the human brain. John McWhorter, linguist and author of several books, including Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and Words on the Move, is a spirited tour guide for the spontaneous and sometimes baffling journey English words have gone through.

Throughout this essay, McWhorter never leaves readers by the wayside. He explains the nuances of definitions, the history of the English language, and something called a “zombie-word.” The survey on English language is precise and all-encompassing, not only examining new words but comparing English to other languages that may be (not-so) similar. 

The central point is this: The fit between words and meanings is much fuzzier and more unstable than we are led to suppose by the static majesty of the dictionary and its tidy definitions. What a word means today is a Polaroid snapshot of its lexical life, long-lived and frequently under transformation.

Writing IRL (Gretchen McCulloch, Slate, July 2019)

Human language, as we can see, changes and adapts in its moving, complex relationship with humans themselves. This even includes parts of language that aren’t words! There are more ways we communicate over writing than just with letters, and our brains — with their symbol-comprehension capabilities — are prepared for that. Internet linguist (yes, that’s a thing!) Gretchen McCulloch explains the growing use of emojis in this essay for Slate. According to McCulloch, writing is a technology that removes the body from the language, making it easier to communicate across distance and time but harder to convey tone of voice. She debunks the idea that emojis are a new language — there isn’t even a way to say “emoji” in emoji — but asserts that they function either as elements of language called “emblems” or “co-speech gestures.”

McCulloch takes readers through her experience researching emojis in an informal, down-to-earth way, but she still takes the search for answers seriously. Like McWhorter, McCulloch presents linguistics in a way that is accessible to the regular person. She also honestly communicates her conversations with other linguists, including multiple perspectives and some computer analysis. McCulloch defines a specific function and purpose to the use of the emoji, and reveals that human beings continually seek connection despite time and distance.

When the world was wondering if emoji were a new kind of language, sequences that retold familiar stories in emoji got a lot of attention. It’s easy to see how this fit in with the idea of emoji as gesture: They’re like playing digital charades or pantomiming to a friend across a loud bar. But this is rarely the way that emoji combos interface with our casual written communication.

Against Copyediting: Is It Time to Abolish the Department of Corrections? (Helen Betya Rubinstein, Lit Hub, January 2023)

Neuroscience and linguistics are interesting, sure, but they matter outside of the classroom, too. Nothing is stable: not our own brains, and not the words in the language we create. Because of this, says Helen Rubinstein, we need to make new rules — no more grammar police. A former copyeditor, Rubinstein reflects on her previous career and makes various arguments that acknowledge not just changing the landscape of English but the personal experiences of writers, such as those who speak with a dialect but are encouraged to use only “proper” English. This piece is hot and unapologetic: It takes into account the cultural scenes and power dynamics implicit in copyediting, challenging the practice. 

I sense a kind of hysteria in these protests against “fiddling with language,” the same hysteria that led me to reject the work of copy editors with stridence. Yes, such changes are unbearably minor in the face of ongoing incarceration and murder; yes, they can resemble the peacocking of those corporate BLM statements that did little more than advertise corporations’ whiteness. But it’s absurd to insist that any choice about language be apolitical.

Melanie Hamon is a freelance writer, grant writer, and full-time student in Ohio. Her work has been published in NUVO Indy and Introvert, Dear.

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