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January 12, 2011 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Seeing this article today about a defendant in a drug trafficking trial who if deaf, mute and without any language skills reminded me of this question from 5 years ago. One of the answers to that question linked to the Straight Dope which had this question and answer.

Certainly, the defendant has the ability to communicate as he allegedly learned learned how to be a drug mule driving cross country to courier coke. If he cannot understand the court proceeding which are all in a language (english) that he does not speak or understand, can he participate in his own defense? Is he able to even stand trial. Some judges have simply said no, go learn American Sign Language (ASL) while confined and come back to my court when you are ready. This defendant does apparently have a way to indicate he wants his lawyer.
posted by AugustWest (59 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
From the last link: "Even in sleep, I was further informed, the old lady might sketch fragmentary signs on the counterpane," Sacks writes. "She was dreaming in Sign."

That is beautiful.
posted by xedrik at 11:42 AM on January 12, 2011


Also see A Man Without Words, by Susan Schaller.
posted by AugustWest at 11:42 AM on January 12, 2011


It is not a perfect solution, (but I don't think there IS a perfect solution), but perhaps after a sustained and legitimate attempt is made to educate people who fall into this category fails said person could be assigned council and a form of trial in absentia be held.

Certainly not all case would be the same, but I would imagine there is little to no motivation to0 actually learn a language if it is then going to be used to put you on trial, so at some point (especially with alleged violent offenders) there has to be a fair workaround implemented, both for society and for the defendants.
posted by edgeways at 11:49 AM on January 12, 2011


From the last link: "Even in sleep, I was further informed, the old lady might sketch fragmentary signs on the counterpane," Sacks writes. "She was dreaming in Sign."

We did sign language with our two older kids when they were babies/toddlers. Our first never really got into it, but our second had a big vocabulary and used it a lot. He used to talk in his sleep with sign language; I remember him signing "bicycle, bicycle" once. Very cute.
posted by not that girl at 11:53 AM on January 12, 2011 [10 favorites]


To work, though, the approach depends on a suspect's aptitude and willingness to pick up a new form of communicating late in life

ASL isn't just a "new form of communicating" like learning how to write - it's a completely different language. It's like locking up defendants until they become fluent in Esperanto - it's certainly an option but not a very good one.
posted by muddgirl at 11:53 AM on January 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't know why I picked Esperanto there - Cecil Adams makes a good point that Esperanto is an invented language with few native speakers (if any). Should have just picked another common language in the US, like Spanish.
posted by muddgirl at 11:57 AM on January 12, 2011


How did the drug traffickers tell the guy in the first link where to go with the drugs?
posted by rusty at 12:00 PM on January 12, 2011


OK, so... He's illiterate, deaf and mute. Obviously he doesn't have a license, but how did he even make it from Vegas to Philly on his own? Or did he have accomplices in the car guiding him.
posted by KGMoney at 12:01 PM on January 12, 2011


Ah, jinx. Rusty, do you prefer Classic or Diet Coke?
posted by KGMoney at 12:02 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is not that he has to learn a new language, but he has to learn a language, his first. Maybe he can recognize pictures. Have a picture of the sign for interstate 80 to follow from one coast to the other?
posted by AugustWest at 12:05 PM on January 12, 2011


Should have just picked another common language in the US, like Spanish.

Spanish is a lot more common. The numbers for ASL are more like Portuguese or Creole.

Did this judge provide a mandate for any ASL education, and will the defendant have any opportunity to learn it in prison, or is this an effective life sentence?
posted by clarknova at 12:08 PM on January 12, 2011


I guess my point was: can we compel non-English-speaking defendants to learn English before they are allowed a trial? What if the defendant only speaks a rare dialect with no available translators?

I'm not saying that ASL-mandates are the wrong choice for a judge to make... I'm just curious how wide-spread the implications are.
posted by muddgirl at 12:23 PM on January 12, 2011


This news story made me think of of users of NSL, Nicaraguan sign language. The first generation of NSL speakers can communicate fine and get through normal everyday life -- similar to this guy. But they're very limited, even though these are people who started communicating regularly when they were something like 10 years old.

The next generation of kids started much younger and were building on an already existing language. They're much better communicators [pdf]. I imagine the next gen is even better, though I don't know if there's published research about that anywhere (haven't really kept up).

The most fascinating thing I ever saw (can't find the video online, unfortunately), is older and younger NSL speakers trying to describe pictures to each other. The pictures contained the same items in different layouts, or, say, a small version of a tree in one pic and a large version in another. The younger kids can easily distinguish, but the older ones have a hard time. But obviously, the older people don't go around grabbing the "wrong" item every time you send them after something in everyday life, because we normally rely on multiple cues. It's just amazing to me how this small experiment revealed such a huge gap in communication that would likely go unnoticed while observing everyday interactions.

This story also reminds me of the language development of Genie, who I'm sure everyone who took intro to psych is familiar with. She just started learning language too late for it to be useful.

So, even with ASL instruction, it is extremely unlikely that this guy will ever be able to reliably communicate and understand. Obviously, he's able to see the difference between things like "small tree" and "large tree" -- but in the absence of contextual cues, even simple concepts like this will be beyond his communication skills. I think it's pretty much impossible to get a fair trial for this guy, as participation in one's own defense is crucial. It'll always be impossible for legal concepts to be communicated to him, and for him to express understanding.

I do worry that this will mean Mexican drug lords (& those in other countries with areas of underdeveloped infrastructure for the deaf) will pounce on a new favorite exploitable class.
posted by lesli212 at 12:25 PM on January 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


"ASL is a tough, tough language," LaVigne said.

Oh come on. It's easier than most spoken languages IMO.
posted by stbalbach at 12:31 PM on January 12, 2011


It would be clearer to say, "Any language acquisition is hard after a very small window in childhood." Learning ASL signs is not difficult, just as I can learn French words; however, learning vocabulary and learning to comprehend a language are two different things.
posted by muddgirl at 12:44 PM on January 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


I guess my point was: can we compel non-English-speaking defendants to learn English before they are allowed a trial? What if the defendant only speaks a rare dialect with no available translators?

I'm not saying that ASL-mandates are the wrong choice for a judge to make... I'm just curious how wide-spread the implications are.


The article mentions that the court systems have tried to accommodate a large number of different non-English speakers, none of which where compelled to learn English. Indeed, the argument can be made that ASL is NOT English in of itself, so even in this case they are not doing so. I suspect the implications are fairly basic, that the court wants the defendants to be able to participate in their defense. The problems in this case is that the defendant is not only seemingly unable to do so, but also unable (perhaps unwilling?) to acquire the skills to do so. If that is the case is it a loophole for the defendants to avoid trail and prosecution? To me the answer is either a modified in abstentia trial, or a ruling similar to when a defendant is unable to participate in the trial by reason of medical conditions. The more I think about it, the more it confuses me why this would be terrible hard to address.
posted by edgeways at 1:01 PM on January 12, 2011


Interesting theory that a language-less defendant can be considered incompetent to stand trial in a court of laws based on language. Isn't punishment based on the assumption that the accused shouldn't be ignorant of the laws of the land, regardless of their position? Is that assumption equally valid for language and non-language persons? Because after all, couldn't the defendant have just drawn a picture of a UPS truck and a middle finger when offered the opportunity to transport the drugs across the country for a fee? If the man in question has a prior record, I'd be loathe to believe a jury would let him off the hook.

Anyways. Years ago I worked as a translator at a local "free" hospital and one of the more curious cases involved a deaf man from the Dominican Republic who could only sign a [Dominican] dialect, which was only understood by another person who would relay to me in Spanish what the patient was signing and I would relay it to the doctor, all the while with the mother in the room interferring. I gave up after five minutes of horseshit and went to basic signs and paper/pen after booting signer #2 and the mom.

Turns out the poor kid was in pain and it would take three or four weeks to find a capable translator in order to schedule an appointment. There has to be hundreds of cases like his out there and it's a shame.
posted by jsavimbi at 1:02 PM on January 12, 2011


I do worry that this will mean Mexican drug lords (& those in other countries with areas of underdeveloped infrastructure for the deaf) will pounce on a new favorite exploitable class.

That reminded me of this story.
posted by dubold at 1:12 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh come on. It's easier than most spoken languages IMO.

I dunno - I've taught my son some ASL, and yes, it's easy enough to pick up nouns or simple words. But translating/signing concepts like "plea bargain"?

Add to that that this case is dealing with someone whose other cognitive skills are unknown, and yeah, sounds incredibly difficult to me.
posted by dubold at 1:15 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


People in this thread are confusing the problem of learning a second language vs. the problem of learning any language. Also, "baby sign" is not ASL. And as practiced by most parents today it's not a complete language, lacking meaningful grammar.

American Sign Language is not harder or easier to learn than any other language. Particularly for a child.

I don't sign myself, but I'm confident there's a perfectly adequate way to say "plea bargain" in sign. That's not the issue with this story: the problem here is someone who not only doesn't understand the legal system but lacks the ability to talk at all.
posted by Nelson at 1:28 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Competence and incompetence to stand trial are significantly different concepts from ignorance of the law. A person who did not know it was illegal to transport drugs without knowing they were drugs will--and must--be treated differently in court from a person who is cognitively incapable of understanding the difference between a legal act and an illegal one. The former has no defense in saying "hey, I didn't know I was breaking a law." and the latter cannot be prosecuted because he does not have the facilities to contemplate his best interests at trial. We call that a person incapable of meaningfully participating in his own defense and we do not prosecute them. It seems to me that a person who is--as discussed in the Straight Dope--profoundly and prelingually deaf can never be competent to stand trial because of the failure of a person raised with nonverbal language to develop the systems for parsing meaning in the way those of us raised with spoken language are. But that is far too novel, and perhaps complex and subtle, an argument for most trial-level criminal courts that I have been in. U.S. criminal trial courts are not set up to handle extremely unique defendant.

After all, the US courts require persons incapable of understanding the proceedings because of mental illness to take anti-psychotics until the trial is over. We wait until injured or ill defendants are healed before they stand trial. I suspect the idea that the defendant can "just learn ASL" is being taken by some as the same thing--basically waiting until he is competent to stand trial and facilitating the journey to legally competent to stand tria
posted by crush-onastick at 1:48 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


We had a defendant like this in my court last year. He was born deaf and raised in the Caribbean by parents too poor (or too ignorant of deaf education) to provide him with access to sign language training. He communicated with his family through a system of basic pantomime expressions, but other than that had no language and was illiterate.

When he was charged with a drug crime, the court had to find a cognitive linguistics professor who could learn this man's existing repertoire of gestures and extend them enough to translate what was happening. He did this in conjunction with an expert in "primitive communication translation," and what they did was a wonder to behold - it was like inventing a new gestural language on the spot.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:02 PM on January 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


If he cannot understand the court proceeding which are all in a language (english) that he does not speak or understand, can he participate in his own defense?

If he really has no language, how did he learn to drive a car? (I'm assuming he doesn't have a license, here.) How did he become a drug mule? How did he find out what he was supposed to do with the drugs? How did he figure out how to navigate a long enough distance from home in the vehicle? How does he live on his own to a degree that he could have gotten involved in this without some social worker or his parents or somebody intervening before it got this serious?

I just don't understand how someone who has no language could do all of this. Sign languages, on the other hand, are languages. Even if you only have a sort of pidgin that you use with teachers and family members, that's still language, and can be a portal to learning a more widely used language like ASL.

It seems to me that a person who is--as discussed in the Straight Dope--profoundly and prelingually deaf can never be competent to stand trial because of the failure of a person raised with nonverbal language to develop the systems for parsing meaning in the way those of us raised with spoken language are.

Sign language translators totally exist. It's probably easier to find/hire a sign language translator than it is to get a Russian or Hindi translator. If the issue is that this guy only uses home sign and doesn't know any recognized sign language, I'd assume that a team of educators, social workers, and other specialists could be found to either teach him a more official/widely used signed language or to help him participate meaningfully in his trial.
posted by Sara C. at 2:09 PM on January 12, 2011


I think the best thing to do here, though, would be to declare him incompetent to stand trial. Especially considering that it's a drug trafficking case, and not mass murder. The idea that this guy is a danger to anyone is really, really abstract.
posted by Sara C. at 2:10 PM on January 12, 2011


Once you have the groundwork laid for a first language (whatever that might be), you can build from there. It's more difficult as an adult, but most adults with functional first languages are capable of learning more languages--at least to some extent.

The other problem is the feedback between language, knowledge and perception. I have aphasic seizures, albeit rarely. I can't describe them to you accurately, because explaining them requires me to access the very functions that are temporarily wiped out. But language is really all I have to convey it, so...you'll just have to deal with the contradiction.

The experience of the total obliteration of language is almost certainly different from never having had language at all--language shapes how we sort/interpret everyday sensory input/output. For example, I can recognize and make decisions based on concepts that I learned only because I had higher-level language skills at the time I learned them. For example, I can't read, but I can 'see' on a calendar where a date is without being able to read the words/numbers--it's the location of the 'date' on a specific paper calendar for that year, and am able to sort activities scheduled on that date into the same mental category as that square on the calendar, and line them up with a numeral-free analog clockface. I can navigate and orient on a map, recognize and match maps to locations or visual information associated with abstract concepts related to those locations (e.g., an image of Napoleon Bonaparte would go on a map of France), and orient things on a timeline (without numbers--I can do 'before'/'same time'/'after' and some semblance of distance representing the length of time).*

Those are not concrete associations. I used language when I created those cognitive ties, and I assume there's some remnant that pulls them together even when I can't understand or express language.

*how do I know this? If you're aphasic and not going anywhere for awhile, you might as well find out what higher-order thinking and tasks you can do without access to language.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 2:16 PM on January 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


Also, I hate to triple post, but the further into the philly.com link I read, the more it seems like A) the reporter doesn't understand the difference between knowing a language and being literate, and B) this guy does have language, he just doesn't know ASL, signed English, or any other sign language that would be well-known in the Philadelphia judicial system.

From this quote:

"Although uncertain of much of his client's history, Rideout thinks Gonzalez lost his hearing after a severe fever as a baby - a story reenacted through pantomime,"

it really seems that Gonzalez does have language - how in the world do you "pantomime" abstract concepts like "I had a high fever when I was a baby" otherwise? For that matter, how do you even know information like that if it wasn't told to you?
posted by Sara C. at 2:21 PM on January 12, 2011


Perhaps a further clarification, following on my first and Nelson's comment, is in order. It may help explain why this is not simply a matter of "translation".

This guy is the first guy ever to speak his "language"- which is likely very primitive and more like a pidgin. His language lacks many, many concepts. His situation reminded me of the first generation NSL speakers because there are basic concepts that they just cannot communicate. People who understand the concepts in their same language try to explain it to them, and it is completely impossible to impart that knowledge.

His situation is much more similar to language acquisition that language translation. And it's been repeatedly shown that language acquisition, to the point of fluency, becomes impossible after a certain age. Translation doesn't actually become impossible, just more difficult as we get older.
posted by lesli212 at 2:22 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sara, I could totally drive a car without language--NOT THAT I WOULD, DON'T SEIZE AND DRIVE, KIDS--and I can actually conceive of how you'd learn to do that without language. It's a direct and concrete skill-set and the knowledge can be acquired without reference to abstract explanation.

When it comes right down to it, you learn to drive by driving. We're just so accustomed to organizing knowledge with language that we forget it is also acquired directly.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 2:22 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Following on Sara C's 3rd comment - the reason he likely can communicate "had a fever and lost my hearing as a baby" is because it's something that exists in his world and he has had to find a way to get the concept across to people he's met.

It would be like explaining an amicus brief, or sui juris to a permanent 3 year old.
posted by lesli212 at 2:26 PM on January 12, 2011


But there are abstract concepts in learning to drive that basically can't be explained without language. Like who has the right of way at a four-way stop.

I mean, I get that you could learn to operate a vehicle by having someone physically show you how to start the ignition, how to put your foot on the gas, how to shift into reverse, etc. But in terms of participating in traffic, there's just a lot of stuff you need to know that is too abstract to impart outside of language.

The answer, of course, is that someone taught him this stuff using home sign. Which is language. This guy has language, it's just really inefficient to the task at hand. The real problem is the shittiness of the system. Disabled immigrants on trial for drug offenses are treated like garbage.
posted by Sara C. at 2:28 PM on January 12, 2011


Legal competence and practical competence sit very very far apart. For instance, profoundly retarded adults and moderately retarded adults often end up in the criminal courts because they participate in criminal schemes. Sometimes, they are physically capable of things like driving, or following short lists of instructions, and this makes them look culpable for crimes. Sometimes--although not often enough for my comfort--the court recognizes that the disability renders them incapable of the sophisticated, abstract thinking required for meaningfully assisting in your own defense.

Deafness, of course, is NOT mental disability. But I wonder if the gulf between a brain which has verbal language and one which has only a gestural language is not significant enough to equate to legal incompetence. How does a person with only gestural language--even a very sophisticated one--deal with the nuances of court, which is essentially one long abstract verbal strategy?

Of course, I hold the radical opinion--not uncommon, actually in the defense community--that all adolescents are incompetent to stand trial. So I might be the wrong person to be considering these questions.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:32 PM on January 12, 2011


But he doesn't have language. He has words and concepts. That's fundamentally different from language.

Take a look at the video and link in my first post - might help clarify the capacity of people in this situation. everyday gesture is distinct from flexible, infinitely extendable language.
posted by lesli212 at 2:34 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


But lesli, if this guy really doesn't have language, then how could anyone have told him how/why he became deaf?

Though, to take it outside of the nuance of "has language or not", a lot of hearing people in the criminal justice system don't understand stuff like amicus brief of sui juris. Hell, I have a college degree, and when I was arrested at a political protest I didn't entirely understand what was going on with my case. That's why we hire lawyers. There's no reason Gonzalez couldn't have a team of language specialists/educators and translators working with his attorney to do right by him.

The problem here is that the court system isn't interested in doing right by this guy, especially if it means hiring a team of experts rather than the usual $300 you'd throw to your standard ASL translator on a phone tree somewhere in a clerk's office.
posted by Sara C. at 2:36 PM on January 12, 2011


everyday gesture is distinct from flexible, infinitely extendable language.

I understand this. But a lot of the details in the article make it clear that this guy has language. He just doesn't have a language that the PA court system knows what to do with.
posted by Sara C. at 2:38 PM on January 12, 2011


Sara, I'm using a formal definition of "language", not a casual one. I think that may be part of the confusion. "a language" can be a pidgin. "language" is a formal, flexible, system of cognition which requires a certain social environment for development.

I contend he does not have language. He had a pidgin, of which he is the first and most fluent speaker; though a few others can communicate with him, he does not have to social development infrastructure required to call his mode of communication a language. as shown in my NSL video link, the first speakers of an emerging language lack many concepts; sometimes things you'd think are basic (like "who i am") never get defined because there's no need (ie, everyone the woman encountered up until that time already knew who she was). sometimes things you'd think are crazily complex are integral to a persons life, so the groundwork for these concepts -- "deaf" "baby" "sick" -- are introduced to his communication framework very early on.

Furthermore, after a certain amount of cognitive development, it becomes impossible to acquire language. (not acquire "a" language, but to acquire language itself).

Lawyers are specialized "translators" for their clients -- even though sui juris isn't intuitive, it can be explained to you because you have language to build it up on. You have the ability to infinitely build on and recombine concepts until you have understanding. You have an infinitely extendible system of signs and symbols. This guy's system of signs and symbols is limited: it is not infinitely extendible, which is one of the hallmarks of human linguistic communication.

There are hard limits to what he can ever communicate - even spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on care and language instruction is not going to change that (see my link to genie).
posted by lesli212 at 2:56 PM on January 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Radio lab has a great podcast Words
We meet a woman who taught a 27-year-old man the first words of his life, hear a firsthand account of what it feels like to have the language center of your brain wiped out by a stroke, and retrace the birth of a brand new language 30 years ago.

The most moving moment is when the deaf-mute without language realizes that things have names. Imagine not being able to name things because you don't even realize names exist.
posted by ShooBoo at 2:58 PM on January 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Somewhat ironically, I've realized this conversation might be easier in French since they have two words - langue and language -- where we have one: language.

Ironic also because I think that Saussure's insight in describing communication as having two aspects - langue and parole (the system of language vs. the use of language) - may have been more intuitive for him as a French speaker with a built-in linguistic distinction than it may have been for an English speaker. Yet another way language (lack of language or access to it) may shape thought.
posted by lesli212 at 3:02 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


But I wonder if the gulf between a brain which has verbal language and one which has only a gestural language is not significant enough to equate to legal incompetence. How does a person with only gestural language--even a very sophisticated one--deal with the nuances of court, which is essentially one long abstract verbal strategy?

A gestural language is not inherently less sophisticated than a spoken one; he just happens not to have either. It's just a difference in modality. Take writing - I don't think anyone here would argue that the concepts you can express orally through English are necessarily more complex or sophisticated than those you can express through writing. Likewise, what if you had a manual/gestural system for representing English? (ASL is not a way of representing English - I'm developing a separate point here.) Surely that could be used to express abstract concepts, even if it was somewhat cumbersome.

Shifting over to ASL (or any other signed language - BSL, LSF, LSB, etc) - just like the above example, these are complex and sophisticated language. Having a language be gestural does not mean it can't indicate an abstract concept. The problem is that this guy doesn't have such a language; or any language. He grew up without any sort of consistent linguistic input from which to develop a language - meaning that now, he has no foundation on which to learn a language.

It seems to me that a person who is--as discussed in the Straight Dope--profoundly and prelingually deaf can never be competent to stand trial because of the failure of a person raised with nonverbal language to develop the systems for parsing meaning in the way those of us raised with spoken language are.

(This comment is by a different author than the first one I addressed.) It's absolutely possible for someone profoundly and prelingually to learn a language of equal sophistication to English - and not at all uncommon, provided the child is given the necessary exposure, usually through early intervention programs and school programs aimed at deaf children. But again, that's not the situation this guy is in. Had he been exposed to a signed language as a child, he would have a language that could be used through an interpreter to stand trial (finding an interpreter for Lengua de SeƱas Mexicana in Philly might be a challenge for the court, but there are ways around that). Unfortunately, he presumably doesn't have that childhood background.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 3:24 PM on January 12, 2011


It seems to me that perhaps when thinking about this individual we should be thinking about "receptive" vs. "expressive" language. Perhaps this person has some rudimentary "whole word decoding" that he learned over time, thereby allowing him to navigate things like roads and transportation, without having any explicit way of expressing those concepts linguistically (whether it's verbal or signed.) It would be interesting to see what a speech-language pathologist would be able to learn from this individual, much like the cognitive-linguistic professor mentioned in the earlier thread.

Perhaps the behaviors he's exhibited could be explained by some receptive "language" abilities in the absence of "expressive" language.

(I use quotes to denote some sort of visual understanding of abstract concepts to differentiate them from popular understanding of language as a "verbal" act...)
posted by absquatulate at 4:51 PM on January 12, 2011


Leaving aside whether or not it's possible to use rules that one cannot articulate explicitly, you don't actually need to know the lawful order of cars at a four-way-stop in order to drive.

All you need is for most of the other drivers on the road to be aware of those rules, and for them to recognize that the people around them may or may not be following the rules at any given time. Furthermore, a significant amount of successful driving isn't merely vehicle operation or possessing a good grasp of the legal regulations--it's the drivers' ability to observe and predict the behavior of other occupants of the road and to adapt accordingly. There are plenty of places--and actually Philadelphia, I'm looking directly at you and your MSA here--where adherence to the explicit traffic laws is a hindrance to the practical, everyday task of navigating a vehicle.

Driving is very much a social skill, and although language is inherently social, not all social skills require language.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 5:34 PM on January 12, 2011


"a language" can be a pidgin. "language" is a formal, flexible, system of cognition which requires a certain social environment for development.

A pidgin is a language.

Guys, the philly.com article actually describes a commonly used tactic that would allow this guy to participate in his trial - ultimately it boils down to hiring a special kind of interpreter who has experience with this sort of thing. Of course, it's at the very end, and the article does not address why that method isn't being used.

After reading the actual link, it really sounds to me that A) this guy has some degree of language ability, and B) the court has something they could do in order to actually try the dude. Except there's a lot of hand-waving about how they somehow can't help him, because, ummmmm, well just because. My guess is that the reason boils down to "this guy is poor, Mexican, disabled, uneducated, has no known connections, and isn't from around here, so why bother hiring some special translator when we could just throw him in jail with all the other disenfranchised people?"
posted by Sara C. at 6:35 PM on January 12, 2011


(see my link to genie).

Read the article. This guy isn't Genie. He has language. Just not a language anybody in Philadelphia speaks.
posted by Sara C. at 6:38 PM on January 12, 2011


I do not agree with Sara C that this is about not wanting to help some poor Mexican. He clearly can do some communication. He came up with gestures for his lawyer. Look at his picture. He is capable of buying a haircut and a razor and using the sharp razor correctly. Having no language does not make you stupid. My guess is that he has no language but can recognize things, people and patterns. He can mimic things. I think the best way to communicate with him would be with picture cards. But I do not think he would be able to communicate abstract concepts that way. While I think he is capable of understanding concepts (he is of the human species after all), I do not think he has the language skills nor tools.

He needs social services, not jail time.
posted by AugustWest at 6:59 PM on January 12, 2011


I don't by any means think he's stupid.

I just think that, if he really didn't have language, he'd be a lot more isolated than what we know is the case. I think that, using Occam's razor and actually reading the article, the more likely situation is that he has some degree of language ability, but the article is explaining the situation poorly.
posted by Sara C. at 7:17 PM on January 12, 2011


Maybe we should take this to memail? i thought i'd made myself clear within the thread, but i can see that's not the case.

I am not saying he cannot communicate basic needs and ideas. I am saying that language, as a cognitive ability, is characterized by more than just that.

Also, you seem to think I believe he should be jailed because he can't communicate. I feel I've made it clear that he should be set free because he can't participate in his own defense. Furthermore I believe it would be cruel and unusual to put him in some sort of holding facility with the intent of "teaching" him language. It's not like teaching a french speaker english. It's like teaching a person who knows only the words in the cat in the hat to read grey's anatomy. sure, that can happen if we start when a kid is 3 and work with him for 20 years but (a) gonzales is no longer 3 and his cognitive processes have stabilized and (b) he can obviously learn and i hope he gets that opportunity but having 20 years of your life taken away "for your own good" with no trial, conviction, pressing danger, or hope of fixing the problem, is cruel.

It seems you feel he's disenfranchised and must be reenfranchised. I believe he's so incredibly disenfranchised that there's no way real communication is possible, and it would be incredibly immoral to try. I also suspect you believe I'm saying he's mentally deficient in some way. That's not really what I'm saying either. I am, however, pointing out that there are certain things that, if humans aren't exposed to before a certain age, they can never master (though we can do a decent imitation often).

It's just a fact that it's impossible for one person, in one generation, to develop what is known as "language" -- that's really the key to what I've been saying. That does not mean that communication is impossible. Language and communication are two very different things.

I really really wish I could show you this video I saw at a talk with a 40 year old woman, who was one of the first speakers of NSL, communicating with a 10 year old kid who learned NSL from very young childhood when it was already a language in use in a community. i feel like you'd instantly see the difference between what the guy, Gonzales, can communicate and what a true speaker of a language is capable of.

The conversation between the boy and the woman went something like this:
woman - How do you know how to say where everything is?
boy - I don't know, i just do. When you want to say x, you move your hands like this, and when you want to say y, you move your hands like that
woman - I don't understand.
boy - What don't you understand?
woman - i don't understand what you're doing. what's the difference?

Ultimately, she'll either never get it, or it will take her years to understand and she'll never intuitively understand and generate the correct signs. At the time she learned NSL, it didn't yet need fully articulated positioning concepts. It developed as groups of kids taught it to younger groups of kids. What's fascinating to me is that this means even another native speaker of her language cannot explain this concept to her.

It's like trying to explain a concept like "thought" - kids have the cognitive ability (for debated reasons) to pick up on contextual cues to understand the concept of "thought". it's really amazing. But in order to express what "thought" is to someone whose language acquisition capacities are set, the explainer and the learner would get lost in nested definitions.
q- what's "thought"?
a- well it's the content of cognition
q- what is content? what is cognition?
a- well, content is anything that is a thing, and cognition is a mental process
q- what's mental? what's a process?
a- mental is what happens in your mind. a process is something that has a beginning and end in time

etc etc etc....

This guy is the first native speaker of his emerging language, which only a handful of others speak. I guarantee there are things he just has never conceptualized because he's only one person.
posted by lesli212 at 7:52 PM on January 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


Sara C, I get the sense that because you do not see how people can navigate the world and perform a variety of activities of daily living without possessing functional language development, you consider it nearly impossible.

This man has functioned in the world at a certain level, ergo, he must have acquired true language.

I know many people with wide-ranging forms of language impairments due to a variety of factors (prelingually deaf and in a rural, isolated area, brain injury, developmental issues, congenital disorders, etc). I have seen (and borrowed when necessary) independent adaptive techniques for circumventing the problems these impairments cause that are very clever indeed. The part of the article that I found hard to believe was the assertion that scenarios like his are as rare as it claims.

At any rate, on why 'home sign' and 'protolanguage' are problematic in this case: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2901#comment-102909
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 8:16 PM on January 12, 2011


I am saying that language, as a cognitive ability, is characterized by more than just that.

I agree. The disagreement between us is over the fact that I've read the article, and it sounds like he does have language as a cognitive ability. Just not a language that the Philadelphia court system is willing to work with.

Also, you seem to think I believe he should be jailed because he can't communicate.

I've said nothing of the kind here. I don't think we disagree about whether he should be in jail or not.

Personally, even though I do think he has language, I still think the right answer in this situation would be to just declare him incompetent to stand trial and let him off the hook (or actually pony up to get him the translation services he needs). I mean, it's drug running, not serial murder. He's not a danger to anyone.
posted by Sara C. at 8:17 PM on January 12, 2011


edgeways: perhaps after a sustained and legitimate attempt is made to educate people who fall into this category fails said person could be assigned council and a form of trial in absentia be held.

US law throws up some pretty hefty roadblocks to that, though. The Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause prohibits the conviction of a person who is not competent to stand trial. Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 171, 95 S.Ct. 896, 43 L.Ed.2d 103 (1975); Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 378, 86 S.Ct. 836, 15 L.Ed.2d 815 (1966). And, as already discussed above, SCOTUS has generally defined competency as the ability to comprehend the proceedings against them and to assist in one's defense. So, it'd be a pretty tough legal circle to overcome. The idea of a loophole in cases where the defendant is incapable of communication and/or refuses to become capable is frustrating, but the case law basically arises from a constitutional policy determination that due process and a fair trial always requires a comprehending and comprehensible defendant, and that the net benefit to society of due process outweighs outlier defendants who fall through the cracks.

Plus, defendants have the right to be present for "critical stages" of trial proceedings and, if I recall correctly, violations of that right fall under "structural error" analysis (meaning the appellate court presumes the error rendered the proceedings fundamentally unfair; in plain language, it's an automatic reversal on appeal). The right to be present can be waived (and, totally assuming here, the right to assist in one's defense along with it), but good luck getting a "knowing, voluntary, and intelligent" waiver (as case law defines it) out of someone incapable (at the time) of of meaningful communication.
posted by onebadparadigm at 8:27 PM on January 12, 2011


Sara C, I get the sense that because you do not see how people can navigate the world and perform a variety of activities of daily living without possessing functional language development, you consider it nearly impossible.

This man has functioned in the world at a certain level, ergo, he must have acquired true language.


It's more that I've read the article, and I'm noticing a pretty serious lack of comprehension of basic linguistic facts from the reporter. The reporter seems to be equating literacy with language ability, for instance. He also doesn't seem to understand much about how sign languages work. From that, and some other things that are mentioned in the article (as well as the overall hostile tone), I'm guessing that this guy probably does have some language ability. It's just not language ability that the Philadelphia system is equipped to deal with.
posted by Sara C. at 8:29 PM on January 12, 2011


If the defendant does not understand or appreciate the issues and charges against him, what does he think about being in a jail cell? Did someone explain that to him? Besides picture, this man has been living in the US for some period of time. Where does he live? With whom? Who pays the rent? I am guessing, but it is reasonable to assume that the drug runners are supporting him and feeding him in exchange for what he thinks are tasks or work not knowing the moral or legal implications of what he is doing.

He must have seen a TV? While he may not have language skills to name things and communicate them, assuming he has seen TV, he has seen practical uses for many many things for which he encounters daily.

I don't think his issue is specific to the Philadelphia system, but it is an issue to all courts in the US. I do not think this is a case of Phila not wanting to spend dollars to find a translator or find a way to communicate, it is a case of not possible or not possible in a reasonable time frame.

This man should not be let go scott free. But he should not be put in jail either. He should be given social services in a group home somewhere that he can try to learn a language (ASL?) and can try to find ways to more easily interact with society.
posted by AugustWest at 9:06 PM on January 12, 2011


Yeah, this particular article linked to is kind of crappy. Not once have I been referring to the article writer's sensationalistic "no language" claim (which is actually correct, but not in the way that he thinks it's correct). It's clear that the reporter is using language in a colloquial, not formal, sense.

The reporter is implying "no language" means "no communicative ability". I am not, and have never said this. I disagree with this. He can obviously communicate, just like NSL users, just like Genie.

What I am saying is that "some language ability" is NOT "language". A person under the age of 2 with "some language ability" (ie basic communication skills) is capable of eventually acquiring language. A person over the age of 10 is not.
posted by lesli212 at 9:17 PM on January 12, 2011


I do not think this is a case of Phila not wanting to spend dollars to find a translator or find a way to communicate, it is a case of not possible or not possible in a reasonable time frame.

Per the linked article, and per one of the comments in Uniformitarianism Now!'s link, specialized translators who work with deaf people with minimal access to language definitely exist. I see no reason why the Philadelphia court system couldn't use such a translator; I mean, what happens if someone who speaks only Somali or Kannada or Mongolian were to be accused of a crime? Surely the court finds a translator, even if the translator might have to travel a long way and be paid more than your typical Spanish or Cantonese translator who works for the court on a day to day basis.
posted by Sara C. at 9:21 PM on January 12, 2011


Sara C, are you getting confused between the difference between gestural and linguistic language (specifically, that there is none?)

A guy who speaks Somali speaks a language. A guy who speaks ASL speaks a language.

A guy who was only ever exposed to 500 words of Somali, or English, or German, or whatever -- even the same 500 words in, say, both Spanish and Chinese, does not speak a language. A guy who can make and understand 500 gestures does not speak a full language.

A person with a language has something like at least 10,000 words (probably double or triple that). We may regularly use only a tiny percentage, but we're have at our disposal many more.
posted by lesli212 at 9:32 PM on January 12, 2011


gestural and linguistic

uhhherr, I mean gestural and verbal.
posted by lesli212 at 9:37 PM on January 12, 2011


argh, i mean vocal! I'm tired! :-)
posted by lesli212 at 9:38 PM on January 12, 2011


I'm just going to quote that comment from Uniformitarianism Now!'s link:

Teresa G said,

January 12, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

There are people who are trained to communicate with people like Mr. Gonzalez. They are known as CDIs (Certified Deaf Interpreters) and are themselves Deaf or hard of hearing.

If Mr. Gonzalez is uncooperative with CDIs (which is impossible to tell from the article linked to), then Mark's point about deliberately minimizing his understanding is likely valid. I would think that anyone truly confused by his situation would be eager to try and communicate with a CDI in order to help himself out.

Of course, even if Mr. Gonzalez is being cooperative, if he truly has no understanding of the legal system or what he has done wrong, then there's still a huge problem that no CDI (however skilled they may be) can solve.

For more info see: http://www.rid.org/UserFiles/File/pdfs/120.pdf


I mean, I guess it's possible that this Teresa G is just making all this up, and these CDI folks don't really exist. But if so, it's interesting that both Teresa G and the original philly.com article both seem to think that these people are out there. Maybe is this some kind of urban legend, that there are interpreters who have experience working with deaf people with minimal language abilities? I mean, I hate to get snarky about it, but I'm spelling it out in the most plain language possible. But frankly I'm tired of arguing about something that's getting more and more pedantic as the evening wears on.
posted by Sara C. at 9:38 PM on January 12, 2011


There is a difference between "language" and "a language"; it's not pedantic, it's key to the difficulties gonzales faces.

Yep, CDIs are a thing. Gonzales probably has one now, which is why we know he went deaf as a child, and basic things about his background. Using a CDI is something done to make basic communication possible. Mere basic communication is in no way sufficient for mounting a legal defense, as I've written above.

And as I also wrote previously, it would be possible to work with him and develop his language skills as much as they can. There are two problems with this -

1. it would take years. He would be detained during those years without being prosecuted, which, for a non violent drug mule offense, would be cruel and unusual.
2. After all those years, he will have a larger vocabulary, but he will never have true language ability. Language acquisition happens on a sensitive time frame. If a person isn't exposed to thousands of words before a certain age, the cognitive ability to acquire language at all decreases exponentially.
posted by lesli212 at 9:48 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Basically, I'm saying Teresa G doesn't understand the issue either: she doesn't understand that knowing some words is not the same as knowing a language.
posted by lesli212 at 9:49 PM on January 12, 2011


Also, it would require a cognitive linguist, not a CDI.
posted by lesli212 at 9:59 PM on January 12, 2011


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