Closing the word gap

„The evidence shows that the difference between children who get bedtime stories and those who don’t, the difference in their life chances, is bigger than the difference between those who get elite private schooling and those that don’t.” – from the book The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon

There’s several studies about this topic. And they come to the conclusion that there’s a difference in the amount of words different children are exposed to. And that that difference makes a significant difference in their life chances. Some studies put that „word gap” at 3 million words, others at 30 million. And their predictions in life chances sound equally dramatic.

I can’t say how many million (or billion) words I’m behind. When I was two years old my parents had to give me away for a couple of months. My uncle and aunt had a big house with a big garden. It was a safe place. But there was not much time to attend to me, both my aunt and my uncle were very busy in their jobs. Most of the time I was alone. Therefore there were not many words spoken to me. At that time the world moved far away from me, as if there was an invisible wall between me and everyone else. I was living and floating inside a double-walled bubble. Nobody thought anything of it. Later, as a teenager, I simply was the one who didn’t speak much. And later, as an adult, I became a Software Engineer and finally wasn’t blamed anymore for being socially distant, different. I didn’t think of it anything either.

Only many years later this bubble started to disappear again, around the year 2000. At that time I was 26 years old. With the help of many seminars, journeys, and encounters, over a period of 12+ years I learned to connect again.

I discovered the book The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon in mid December 2020. It was referenced in a blog post somewhere. The title of the book seemed strange to me at first, but after having read the first couple of chapters I understood. The Enchanted Hour. It’s the time of story telling and conversations between parents and children. It made sense. A time of magic, enchanted hours.

After having finished the first chapters of that book I made a big change to my life: I switched from reading in silence to reading out loud.

After a week of daily reading out loud (for one to two hours per day) I started to be able to question our compulsory schooling system on a whole new level. Common practices like studying seated, motionless, and in silence, as well as „Speed Reading”, that is priding oneself of „reading” several dozens of books per month, suddenly turned from being a display of supreme accomplishment and intellectual superiority into a sign of being at least partially traumatised, or having been indoctrinated into an oppressive system.

After a month of reading aloud non-fiction in the English language I decided to improve my own native tongue, German language. I read aloud the recent autobiography of the famous German entertainer Thomas Gottschalk. I enjoyed it wildly at first. I even purchased his audiobook to compare my reading to his. Much to my shame I have to admit, because here we have someone with billions of spoken words under his belt.

Close to the end of his book, after about 8 hours of reading aloud, I discovered its „german-ness”. My original plan was to continue with his previous autobiography, but found something better: my own language, Austrian German. I found a fabulous author, Wolf Haas, and read out loud through his first novel Die Auferstehung der Toten. I felt more grounded, more filled with meaning and purpose, and „having arrived at something” with my new reading practice.

On a side-note: I’m Screen Mirroring Apple Books from my iPhone onto my living room’s TV screen. This means less strain on my eyes, I don’t have to hold a device in front of my face,  and I can walk up and down gesturing wildly while articulating the more dramatic passages.

I was trying to read Watching the English by Kate Fox for years already, but had problems with focusing and understanding her humorous and well versed phrasing. In merely two months of reading aloud I went from stuttering from sentence to sentence to being able to read her chapters fluently. Of course not in the correct English English, but fluently nonetheless.

I did some math: All volumes of Harry Potter add up to 1,084,170 words. At the moment I’m giving Steven Fry the honour to read them to me. „We” are already at the last chapter of The Philosophers Stone. Looking forward to hear what happens next, and who „The man with two faces” really is.

Wikipedia says about the Word Gap, ”The average child in a professional family hears 2,153 words per waking hour, the average child in a working-class family hears 1,251 words per hour, and an average child in a welfare family only 616 words per hour. In four years an average child in a professional family would accumulate experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family 13 million words.”

45 million words in 4 years, that’s 11+ million words per year.

I’m still trying to figure out how to arrive at a staggering 2,153 words per waking hour. It almost seems like looking at Elon Musk’s wealth, and trying to figure out how to get there.

Reading this blog post, you have read 1,025 words.

Hopefully not in total silence.

Who would choose to do cardio?

How does rice make people fat? I don’t know. A normal person with a normal energy burn of 2000 kcal per day would have to eat a minimum of 1,5 kg (3.3 lbs) of steamed rice per day to merely maintain their body weight from rice alone. That’s 10 bowls of steamed rice. That’s a whole lot of rice. One bowl of steamed rice has more calories than two bananas, but less than one donut.

But of course nobody is asking, „How does rice make people fat?” It’s considered a silly question.

Here’s another question nobody is asking: „How does Feldenkrais make people fit?” I don’t know either. A normal person burns approximately 80 kcal at rest, and 220 kcal when walking. And I would put Feldenkrais somewhere in between resting and walking. More on the resting side probably.

Not all movement is fitness.

However, Moshé Feldenkrais’ teachings can be used to improve ability. It can take a person from being unable to do cardio all the way to being able to do cardio.

If suddenly on the menu, who would chose to do cardio?

I would.

Where do you look up things?

Growing up, from baby to toddler to child, one day there comes this question: „Where do you look up things?” Because clearly at some point parents and uncles and aunts have outlived their usefulness. And vice versa, anyone who figured out how to pay for their mortgages and juggle family, jobs, hobbies and friends successfully, has not much room left to answer a constant stream of „Why?”, „What is this?”, „What if?”.

I grew up without the Internet. However, at the time we had books, and my father’s book shelves did nicely. We had a big medical book with two foldable maps of the body and its organs, which could explain all diseases and their remedies. We had one big book for civil law, where I looked up whether or not I am allowed to use my shortcut across our neighbour’s garden (law books are a disappointment, really). And we had a big Encyclopedia printed in sans-serif, with color pictures. I liked the sheer size of the thing, and the smooth white coating. Next to this modern Encyclopedia we had the 24 volume edition of Der Brockhaus. Not as fun, and far less pleasant to flip through, but a must have for any educated middle class family. And then there were hundreds of books on psychology, philosophy, self-improvement, self-help, cooking, and history.

Growing up, from child to young adult, one day there come these questions: „Who decides what goes into an Encyclopedia? What into a Newspaper?” Because clearly it can’t contain everything, and certainly not every viewpoint. And why are some people put into a more favourable light than others?

I’m more exposed than ever

Ali Abdaal pulls his biggest smile and tells me straight to my face: „I’ve become a millionaire! In just two years and with as little as a few hours of work per week!” He swears blind that he knows how crazy that sounds, but promises over and over again: „if you keep watching my videos and if you buy my online courses you can do the same!”

Ali is probably not even lying about his wealth and stellar success. I hear people „making it” left and right. With social distancing and increased screen time I am hard exposed every day to the cheerful faces of marketeers with off the charts diet-success, creme de la creme cooking and craftsman skills, and soul-crushing Bitcoin/Gamestop/Stock market earnings.

The forever-young avatars on my screens, with their perfect hair and perfect teeth and perfect smiles and perfect bodies keep promising all sorts of things: health, wealth, strength, fame, art-skills, houses with great architecture, or even: plain happiness. If only I keep watching their videos, and keep buying their books and courses, I would be able to make it too. With just a few hours of work per week I too could have it all, they bark from my screens.

And the longer I let them bark at me, the fainter my spirit becomes. They drain my trust and hope right out of my eyes. I’m more exposed than ever. I need to chose well whom I allow to touch my soul.


Interactive, responsive, proactive

It wasn’t my first choice to move to the remote countryside. To be more precise, it wasn’t my choice at all. Even less so since it was the kind of countryside that wasn’t particularly welcoming to people who moved there from other parts of the country (or even worse, from abroad). My father moved us there because he would make more business contacts and further his career. The company he used to work for had their headquarters there, in one of the small towns. And from there you could drive into near-by Germany and Switzerland. A good location for a company that produces packaging materials. In summary, my father spent a lot of time commuting and travelling. But it did buy him his dream: a remote standing mansion on the foot of a mountain with a great view onto a lake.

Unfortunately, his career move had the opposite effect for me: isolation, social as well as educational disadvantage. But at that time, as a pre-teenager back in the 1980s I didn’t know that yet. Instead, I thought I’m already doing pretty well as a lone anthropologist – spending my afternoons strolling through nature, and in the mornings at school I was watching the peculiar behaviour of what I later thought might just be the most reserved citizenry in central Europe.

Oh. „Why am I writing this?” I ask myself.

It was there, on the countryside, that I witnessed a few new words popping up. Before that I thought words just existed. Much like the forest and the bees just existed. But the occurrence of new words made it clear to me that words are not a given, they are created. Apart from the words that were particular to the local countryside accents, these were words I had not heard anyone use before, and I observed people trying them on. My two best examples:

a. In my school, which was a slab of concrete and had empty tunnels as hallways which could have been the inspiration for the computer game Doom, one day I suddenly heard some kids call each other „ego”. This went on over the course of a week. Everyone was using the word „ego” up and down all day. „You’re an ego.”, ”You’re the bigger ego.”, „You don’t even know what that means!”, „You don’t even know yourself!” (which was, actually, the truth). By the end of the week the buzz died down, and even though nobody gave (or was given, for that matter) a proper definition of the word „ego”, everyone seemed to have settled with the opinion that „ego” has to mean something like „selfish”. But it was the much cooler sounding word, and the cool kids carried it over into our pop cultural heritage.

b. One of my first computer games I got was from Activision, and on the package it said in big letters: INTERACTIVE. It was like one of the main features of this game. I didn’t understand that word, and I couldn’t find a person to explain it to me either. I can’t blame my parents for their lack of English language skills, but my school’s English teacher was of no help either, that was the real bummer. Therefore I went to the local library. I scanned through dozens of books and magazines to find the answer. In hindsight a good thing. The explanation was this: before the advent of Radio and Television everything was interactive. But nobody knew that everything was interactive, because EVERYTHING was.

At that time, in the 1980s, I couldn’t share these observations with anyone. Nobody cared to listen to me. And if someone did, the best response I would get was „You are strange”, but what I usually got was „You’re not from around here, are you?” I was not upset that nobody liked to be interactive with me. I was not sad. Not even disappointed. Yet.

But isn’t that interesting? Words like „reactive”, „responsive”, „proactive” are greatly useful words nowadays, and people appreciate them and the concepts behind them.

With COVID-19 we are strongly restricted in traveling, but… God bless the Internet and video chat. When meeting online we do not blame each other for being from different places. Nobody is „from around here” anymore.

There’s more to it

There’s more to the colour green, than green just being green. The same could be said about… maybe everything?

When we look at a seemingly simple thing, for example, standing on both feet, we can see it as something simple and self-explanatory. Or we could use it to enter a limitless field of research, play, content creation, discovering beauty, happiness even.

A paradox

Whenever you turn your head without turning it, you will improve how you turn your head.

Technically, you can turn your head without turning it. You do this by locking your head position, and turning everything (shoulders, torso, pelvis) but your head. Paradoxically, this will improve how you turn your head.