Friday, 1 April 2011

Colour, Language and Learning

Ask almost any physicist about the order of colours in a rainbow and, if they don't already know, they'll most likely be able to work it out in an instant. Ask almost any artist and you'll probably have a 50/50 chance of getting a correct answer. Some artists evidently don't even bother to check:

And why should they? - observation and precision have never been prerequisites of a creative form which has more to do with feeling and meaning than its ability to provide representational accuracy. However, as with the ‘art’ of pictorial composition, it's virtually impossible to trace the slightest consensus on the meanings of anything other than the most basic colours. So whilst many artists have devoted their careers to developing languages of colour and many teachers, critics and historians have worked to describe and disseminate these and other symbologies of colour, there remains as much disagreement among the experts as consensus.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised then, that the use of colour in toy production is informed by nothing more sophisticated than the most rudimentary ideas and assumptions about colour. In this regard, a single universal consensus abounds: colour is good - and the more of it the better. This works out very conveniently for the toy manufacturers because they can simply continue to produce toys in colours that children find most attractive whilst parents have little choice but to accept that their homes will be invaded by a panoply of panchromatic plastic whether they like it or not.

On several occasions I’ve mentioned these thoughts to friends who, as a consequence, seem genuinely concerned that I might attempt to deprive my own child of the pleasures of colour (as if such a thing were even possible). They tell me there’s no need for a systematic education in colour from such an early age and that to put such a thing into practice would encroach, to a disturbing degree, upon a child’s freedom to explore and come to their own understanding of the world through individual experience. They also tell me that children have every opportunity to learn such things as they become older and that infancy should be a time of curiosity, play and discovery. No doubt these are all in large part true, but it’s nonetheless instructive to consider quite how significantly different the situation happens to be when it comes to the auditory world, and most specifically language.

Language is almost literally forced down our throats (or rather our ears and eyes) from the very day we are born. Words are stressed, rhymed, sung, spelled out, corrected and constantly repeated. We systematically inculcate our children into the structure and rules of language at every opportunity. We do this instinctively and for the most part we do it extremely well and have done so for millennia.

If infants were themselves able to create and propagate colours more easily than sounds, it seems likely that our primary form of communication would be through rapidly changing colour patterns as opposed to speech. This ability to produce would seem therefore to be a fundamental driver behind the desire to acquire language. In this sense infants seem less interested in language for what it might teach them - for what it explains to them – than what it enables them to do. They’re not interested to learn so much as learning comes as a consequence of wishing to engage, participate and create.


Post a Comment