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COLUMN

The Lost Gift of Gab

Eric J. Plosky

Somewhere along the line, Americans forgot how to speak.

I don’t mean they forgot how to talk, to chat, to natter and babble and kibitz -- mindless verbiage rains down upon us daily.

I’m talking about the skill, the art of speaking -- presenting oneself in an organized, formal manner for the purpose of communicating a particular message or making a distinct point. This talent is hard to spot these days.

Don’t even bother looking for it at MIT. The Institute, which is perfectly satisfied to turn out nearly illiterate graduates who don’t know Shakespeare from Shinola, is just as content to altogether ignore the matter of oral communications.

Just as well, probably; who is there to instruct students in proper speaking? No longer are there teachers, products of a past, superior education system, able to impart their knowledge of speaking to a new generation. A class session on speech would surely, and frighteningly, be even more verbally incoherent than the standard inarticulateness that, invariably, is the order of today.

Fin-de-siecle America even lacks well-spoken role models. Our politicians are noteworthy only for their loquacity (President Clinton especially), not their eloquence. The speech of cultural figures and popular stars is even worse -- enunciation, modulation, any sense of vocal control at all, have all but disappeared. Listen to a rock star being interviewed on the radio, or to the typical professional athlete, and ask yourself if you’re at ease with the sound of America.

I think the art of oral communication has been in decline ever since our ugly-toothed ancestors started splashing around with paint. Yes, the written language catapulted humanity forward -- some (in Course IX) extol writing as our greatest invention. But the advent of writing meant that we would no longer be a race of storytellers, and the erosion of human speaking skills began, accelerating with every Egyptian hieroglyph, Chinese parchment, and Gutenberg bible.

Maybe that’s a bit grand. Still, great storytellers are seldom to be found these days. Most great feats of language now take place in print, as they have for centuries, or on computer screens. Asynchronous communications like e-mail have lessened our capacity to express ourselves synchronously -- that is, with spoken words in real time.

In fact, our society expects respectable speaking ability only of those whose professions absolutely require it. Businesspeople who depend on telephone conversations for their livelihoods are thus dependent on their vokers. Interviewers and talking heads who inhabit live television and radio broadcasts must constantly deliver choice zingers. But we’re lax in our standards even here; we expect nothing more of celebrities, who often must perform impromptu, than minimally understandable sentences.

Speech itself has become a profession, and the elite have firmly entrenched themselves. Americans pay big bucks to listen to stand-up comics and talk-radio commentators who tell the jokes and articulate the viewpoints the hoi polloi are themselves unable to express. Motivational speakers, evangelical ministers -- anybody able to orate, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, has it made.

The rest of us don’t formally learn even the basics of proper speaking. Job interviews are therefore major headaches; one does not typically graduate from an American college able to carry on a standard business conversation. The average American conversation is stuck far below the professional level, mired in the, like, tired, idiotic chatter on par with Friends episodes, you know? Ohmygod!

All of this is very confusing. First of all, we humans have great built-in speech abilities; it’s just the ones that need to be encouraged with teaching and experience that have languished. More innate abilities, such as voice recognition, are undamaged by the absence of cultural standards for speaking. We instantly recognize our friends on the phone, and James Earl Jones as the “This is CNN” guy; we just haven’t realized either the individual or the overall importance of our own speech.

Speaking is central to our childhoods. Our mothers invariably talk to us -- and, until we can begin to understand, at us -- even before birth. Babies and toddlers are bombarded with speech, so it’s no surprise that we learn to talk before we get anywhere near writing implements thinner than crayons. It just seems that we’ve forgotten to continue the learning curve beyond simple subject-verb constructions, compound nouns, and the pluperfect. Individual style, beyond idiosyncratic uses of ‘like’ and ‘you know,’ never develops.

Mastery of the spoken language is forever beyond the reach of those who aren’t motivated or neurotic enough to hone their oratorical skills on their own. Consequently, it should surprise no one that most Americans, according to a recent poll, fear public speaking more than death. When your classmate says he would rather die than give his 4.301 presentation, he may very well be telling the truth.

As an enlightened society, we should ensure that proper teaching in oratory is available to all. A first step would be for MIT to add a speaking (or presentation) requirement to the undergraduate and graduate curricula. To strengthen the appeal of this new requirement beyond the idealistic, merely consider the competitive advantage eloquent MIT graduates would wield in the job market.

The administration might have to spend a bit of time searching the country -- or the world -- before finding a few silver-tongued professors who have the barest shot at rescuing us from muttering oblivion. But the effort would be worth it -- finally, MIT students who can give presentations without so much as breaking a sweat!

And, needless to say, it would be an amusing twist of reputation if MIT graduates began to be known throughout the world as the most well-spoken of Americans. At the absolute least, sitting through a presentation delivered by one of your recitation classmates would probably involve far less suffering.