Cutting-Edge Technology from 3500BC

papyrus_featherYou probably don’t remember learning to speak. It happens too early. Most of us are chattering away before we’re out of nappies. But you may have painful memories of learning to read: the anxiety of spelling tests, word lists, and red pen.

That’s because speaking comes naturally to us, and reading doesn’t. Human beings have always talked. Our brains seem to be ‘hard-wired’ to pick up language. Put a normal baby in an environment where people talk to it, and within a couple of years it will have started to speak itself.

But put a normal person in an environment where there’s writing, and they’re unlikely to learn to read without being taught. That’s one reason why we spend such a large part of our childhood in school. Reading and writing isn’t usually something you just pick up.

Writing first developed in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC. It started with pictograms, mostly used on receipts for purchases of beer. (There’s your fun fact of the day.) But then the city of Uruk developed symbols that represented sounds rather than things, so you could write down anything you could say. The Phoenicians developed this into a proper alphabet, and their trading network spread the cutting-edge technology.

However, for most of history, writing was reserved for experts like scribes and priests. Sometimes rich people and merchants would be able to read and write too, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that the ‘three Rs’ were considered essential for everyone.

So what has all this got to do with dyslexia? By the end of the twentieth century, the developed world finally achieved near-universal literacy – so dyslexia suddenly became visible. Even though ‘dyslexia’ describes a whole spectrum of challenges, reading and writing are the most obvious ones. In fact, dyslexia is only a significant problem if you live in a society where everyone is expected to read and write. Literacy has its drawbacks!

It might be tempting for dyslexics to wish we had been born in a pre-literate age, when we would have been just like everybody else, but that would be a huge loss. Literacy reduces inequality and enables social mobility. It provides huge opportunities for communication and co-operation around the world, without having to go through privileged mediators like priests and scribes. Reading fiction increases the skill of empathy. Some scientists even think that learning to read is necessary for analytical thought; being literate allows you to organise your thoughts and make connections between them, even when you’re not actually writing them down.

With the invention and growth of the internet, we’re currently living through a technological change almost as huge as the invention of writing. But it wouldn’t have been possible without writing. Even computer code is a form of writing, after all.

The written word can sometimes feel like the enemy to dyslexics, but writing is the thing that makes our whole modern world possible. That includes technology, like text-to-speech, that is making life easier for people with severe dyslexia. For better or worse (at least until the next dark age) our modern lives are founded on literacy.

Karen Murdarasi, guest blogger

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