Charlie's thoughts

Language & making sense

In the end, knowledge exists because we have a knower, someone to know the knowledge. In that case, the nature of the knowledge must be affected by the nature of the intelligence of the knower - of the knower's ability to grasp and handle concepts.

The relationship between language and intelligence is a fundamental aspect of understanding how the mind works. Accordingly, the exploration of that relationship is crucial for (a) the teaching of language, particularly at advanced levels, and (b) the TOK aspect of the English B programme.

The extracts given below raise interesting issues about how levels of language skill and levels of effective intelligence are related

The texts

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1959) tells the story of Charlie, who was born with a very low intelligence. He has a very simple job, and goes to classes to help his mental handicap. Through these classes, he becomes involved with a research programme testing medical procedures to improve intelligence. These procedures are remarkably successful, and Charlie changes radically.


progris riport 2 — martch 4
I had a test today. I think I faled it and I think mabye now they wont use me. What happind is I went
to Prof Nemurs office on my lunch time like they said and his secertery took me to a place that said
psych dept on the door with a long hall and a lot of littel rooms with onley a desk and chares. And a
nice man was in one of the rooms and he had some wite cards with ink spilld ail over them. He sed
sit down Charlie and make yourself cunfortible and rilax. He had a wite coat like a docter but I dont
think he was no doctor because he dint tell me to opin my mouth and say ah. All he had was those
wite cards. His name is Burt. I fergot his last name because I dont remembir so good.

I dint know what he was gonna do and I was holding on tite to the chair like sometimes when I
go to a dentist onley Burt aint no dentist neither but he kept telling me to rilax and that gets me
skared because it always means its gonna hert.


Am I a genius? I don't think so. Not yet anyway. As Burt would put it, mocking the euphemisms
of educational jargon, I'm exceptional - a democratic term used to avoid the damning labels of
gifted and deprived (which used to mean bright and retarded) and as soon as exceptional begins
to mean anything to anyone they'll change it. The idea seems to be; use an expression only as long
as it doesn't mean anything to anybody. Exceptional refers to both ends of the spectrum, so all my
life I've been exceptional.

Strange about learning; the farther I go the more I see that I never knew even existed. A short
while ago I foolishly thought I could leam everything—all the knowledge in the world. Now I
hope only to be able to know of its existence, and to understand one grain of it.

Is there time?

The novel is essentially written as Charlie's diary, and so the style changes as his mind changes. You'll understand that Text A is Charlie before he takes the drugs, and Text B after.


Charlie texts, with worksheet

There's a film, 'Charley' - see Internet Movie Data Base - and it is actually available on CD from Amazon

Student access

The page  TASKS Charlie's thoughts   supplies the two extracts for the students to read and think about outside class. The tasks set in the worksheet are also presented as an online short answer task, which is intended to focus their attention more closely on the nature of language.

Finally, there is a writing task, requiring an essay about the whole area of language and thought. This may be a good follow-up task after the whole issue has been discussed in class.

The worksheet

Note that the tasks / questions are grouped as 'Thinking into the text' and 'Thinking out from the text'. This is an important distinction, to which students should pay attention. Thinking into involves looking more closely at the text, in order to explore what it says, and to find specific evidence to support interpretations. Thinking out from involves extrapolating from what the text states in order to explore implications, and to see the text from different angles.


Personally, I would let the students work from the worksheet, and then explore and develop what they come up with. What they come up with will be their current state of knowledge, on which we might build some of the following ideas. 

Text A: 'simple' Charlie

> Let us not forget that these two contrasting texts are from a work of fiction, and are not real evidence collected as part of a scientific research project into intelligence. This is significant because no matter how conscientiously Daniel Keyes researched the science of mental development in 1959, he was still a novelist and had to think of communicating with his readers. Accordingly, the fictional Charlie is never going to write anything that is incomprehensible - but I'll bet that a real Charlie might.

> This conscious purpose shows itself (unconsciously?) in the fact that Charlie's obvious language flaws in Text A are principally to do with spelling. Grammar and syntax are actually quite sophisticated. For instance, look at the final sentence in Text A (lines 8-10) - it contains eight clauses, and past simple, past continuous and present simple are all used correctly. What is noticeable is that it is an oral-based run-on sentence - it is unsophisticated language, but it is not actually incompetent.

> Keyes probably found that it is surprisingly difficult to write poorly if you have a developed language intelligence ... how do you de-structure your mind? Try writing like one of your weakest students ...

> So how does the writing indicate Charlie's 'limited intelligence' ? I would suggest three aspects:

inappropriate style - essentially, the run-on oral rambling - little sense of the purposefully selected sequence of events we would expect from a written narrative. One thing follows another with little sense of design (but then ... don't we know student writing like that?).

limited knowledge - he doesn't seem to understand what happens in a "psych dept" - he thinks he's had a "test" like some kind of school test; and he doesn't have any idea that the "wite cards with ink spilld all over them" are actually Rhorsach blots (but then, that's not apparent within this extract - all Charlie mentions is something that he has observed but clearly doesn't understand).

flawed interpretation - Burt can't be a doctor because "he dint tell me to opin my mouth and say ah". And why should a visit to a psychologist be comparable to a visit to the dentist ? If this is simply because they both wear white coats, Charlie has limited ability to sort and categorise.

> But surely, all of the above indicates that the writing in Text A is childish, rather than 'mentally handicapped'? What Keyes has written is more an imitation of undeveloped writing, I would suggest, rather than an accurate depiction of mental incapacity.

Text B: 'clever' Charlie

Why do we see Text B as 'sophisticated' writing?

> The immediately obvious reason is that there are no spelling errors! Nor, indeed, any apparent errors of any sort.

> Secondly, there is the obvious range of vocabulary used - not just the synonyms that he discusses, but also in words used in passing, in support, such as "euphemisms", "jargon", "spectrum".

> Less obviously, sentence structures are varied, apparently purposefully. The first three sentences are short and function as a kind of dialogue ... and then the fourth is a long and complex statement. Grammar does not just 'happen', it is varied for effect, to change the way that we respond.

> This all adds up to a sense of command of the language. Words don't just follow each other, they seem to have been selected. This is explicitly evident in the way that he debates and analyses the use of the various synonyms - there is an awareness that words do not simply have single meanings, they have connotations and are used to imply.

> There is also the sense of the author's 'voice'. In a sense, both texts have an oral quality, but Simple Charlie just talks - while Clever Charlie debates. He asks himself questions, and the reader can follow the to and fro of ideas like watching a tennis match.

> Finally, there is the structure of the content of each text. Text A is a simple chain of events, while Text B is an architecture of ideas.

Once the students have grasped most, or all, of the above points, ask them "Which do you want to write like: Simple Charlie or Clever Charlie? ... OK, so now you know what you have to try to do!"

So what? The TOK angle

What TOK points can we extract from the reading of these texts ?

** The structure of language reveals (something of) the thinking that caused the language.

** The more complicated the ideas you have, the more complicated the language you need to express those ideas

** ... or rather - the wider the range of ideas you have, the wider the range of language you need to express them (Language doesn't have to be complicated. You can say clever things in simple language - provided that you use the simple language cleverly!)

** To put it another way, it's not just about vocabulary, about separate words - it's about how you combine the words.

** An illustration: 'blue' is a perfectly useful word ... but how can it handle all the possible variations of blueness that actually exist ?

** The more sophisticated the language used, the more the associations of words matter - and the more you have to be aware of the multiple meanings of words, and combinations of words.

** Simple Charlie doesn't need to think about the meanings of words - because he doesn't know much about what happens anyway.

** Clever Charlie needs to think about the meaning of words - because he has so many ideas he needs to try to organise them, to keep them manageable.


The page  Language & Thought  contains an interesting exercise to explore the way that language and thought function together.

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