How Whole Language Lost the War

Ere I could make a prologue to my brains, they had begun the play. – Hamlet.

On an otherwise empty table, under a bare electric bulb, the machine sat squat and solid. Impregnable, inscrutable, the keys ranged along its front were like so many blunt tusks, giving it an air of silent pugnacity. It was called Enigma.

The young mathematician stared at it from the shadows. He had been working on the machine for weeks, and slowly, grudgingly, it had begun to yield its secrets. The underlying principles of the code were, he knew, almost within his grasp. He rubbed red-rimmed eyes, and flexed his fingers. He had had his short break; it was time to get back to work.

Just then heavy steps sounded on the wooden steps of the hut. The door creaked open and the burly figure of Major Goodman hurried in, accompanied by a blast of freezing air. The door slammed shut. Goodman stared at the machine for a long moment, then turned to the young mathematician. “Well?” he barked. “Got it sorted yet, Turing?”

“We’ve begun to make good progress. We’ve worked out that the key changes daily, and that’s why the apparent irregularities – ”

“Begun, begun! Never mind beginnings. We’ve been at the beginning for weeks. The top brass is breathing down my neck. We need to generate some messages, d’you hear me?”

Turing rubbed his forehead wearily. He could never reconcile the major’s overbearing confidence with his utter lack of understanding. “There are over ten to the power of twenty-six possible combinations if all five wheels are employed – ”

Goodman cut him off again. “Look, Turing, no hard feelings, you’re a nice enough young fellow and I’m sure you mean well, but it’s all a bit dull. We can inject some colour and energy into this exercise by looking at it from another perspective.”

Turing stared blearily at the major’s florid face. His mouth moved, but his brain could not formulate the words to describe the hours of back-breaking, concentrated labour that he and his team had put in, twenty-four hours a day, in bare huts and isolated from friends and family. It was a labour he was prepared to offer, if at the end he had developed a system for decoding any message that the enemy cared to send. But Goodman had moved on.

“Come. Look at these messages. You see this? What’s that mean?” He had unfolded a set of papers and jabbed a stubby finger at the jumble of letters and numbers. Turing studied it.

“The first thing to do is to determine the date it was sent. Then when – ”

“Beginnings, beginnings, Turing.” Goodman plumped himself into the chair in front of the machine. “You’ve been looking at this from the wrong end of the telescope. I mean, does the government need the code, or the meaning of the message?”

“Well, it’s not possible – ”

“Of course it’s possible. Consider: We’re trying to read German messages. Reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game.  It involves an interaction between thought and language.  Efficient reading does not result from precise perception and identification of all the elements, but from skill in selecting the fewest, most productive cues necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time.”

“Who said that, sir?” Turing asked distractedly. He had an unpleasant feeling that he already knew the answer.

“I did. Now, we know that this was sent just before major troop movements in Normandy. So it’s about troop movements and those troops did in fact move. We can now predict, d’you see! Look, this part here seems to be about where the troops went to, and this part here . . .” He paused. “Not really cricket of the bally Germans to leave out the pictures,” he muttered. He searched the page. “This part here – this V O R – that’s probably Von Runstedt, their Normandy commander, what what? And here, these dots – if you stand back and squint, they form a sort of a picture. Looks a bit like . . . well, a bit like a wave breaking on the beach, and here would be the beach huts – obviously that’s the secret bit – and over here, looks like a man walking a dog.” Goodman slapped his forehead. “Great Scott! That’s it! Von Runstedt will be working his men like dogs on the beaches of Normandy.”

“Remarkable,” Turing said mildly. He felt he had lost even the power of sarcasm.

“Not remarkable at all,” snorted Goodman. “Efficient reading results from skill in selecting the fewest, most productive cues. These cues are selected from perceptual input on the basis of the reader’s expectation. They are guided by constraints set up through prior choices, his language knowledge, his cognitive styles and strategies he has learned. And while these cues provide partial information, the reader forms a perceptual image using these cues and his anticipated cues. Elementary!”

“Mmm,”said Turing.

“Then, the reader searches his memory for related syntactic, semantic, and phonological cues. This memory search may lead to selecting more graphic cues and to reforming the perceptual image.”

“Oh? Why?”

Goodman became grim. “Don’t be clever with me, Turing. These cues are necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time. And so they are. I now have a clear message to show to the top brass. Just get on with using the psycholinguistic guessing approach, and send me some more messages. Right, tip-top, must get this to HQ.”

“You have constructed a message, sir,” said Turing, leafing through the remaining papers. “But we’re guessing and the Germans aren’t. If we don’t know exactly what they meant, the intelligence is no use, and we’ll lose the war.”

But the door of the hut had swung closed, Goodman had disappeared into the night, and the machine stared back at him smugly from the table. A chill engulfed him that had nothing to do with the frosty night.

Enigma 2

You can read the real Kenneth Goodman’s thoughts on reading (many reproduced above verbatim) in his 1967 paper Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game. These ideas formed the basis of the whole language approach to reading that has seen a consistent fifth of students arriving at secondary school unable to read at the necessary level. For a more entertaining critique of Goodman, you may wish to read Martin Kozloff’s paper, Rhetoric and Revolution.

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6 Responses to How Whole Language Lost the War

  1. Andy says:

    It’s not a war.

    • The title refers to World War 2, which I am assured by historians was indeed a war 😉

      • Andy says:

        My History A level only went up to the formation of the League of Nations. I always wondered what happened next.

        You mean that any implied reference to the so-called language wars was unintentional?

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