It's a sign!
May 4, 2004 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Baby Sign Language. Hearing children can learn to sign before they can talk. Parents can use ASL, or make up their own language.
posted by Karmakaze (67 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am SOOO looking forward to teaching my forthcoming son ASL. My brother-in-law did this with his son and I have a hearing friend who works in a school for the deaf who recommended the book Sign With Your Baby & the DVD series Signing Time. My nephew really picked up speaking fast as a result and ther was much less frustration due to the inability to communicate.
posted by bkdelong at 8:57 AM on May 4, 2004

How soon before they can learn this
posted by djseafood at 9:05 AM on May 4, 2004

wow. Baby Sign Language could definitely aid the Diaper Free movement...
posted by shoepal at 9:05 AM on May 4, 2004

The daycare where my daughter went started the kids on ASL around age 1 1/2. Funny thing is, they didn't tell the parents. When I noticed that my daughter was using some emphatic gestures, and seemed to be very frustrated that I didn't understand her, I asked the daycare providers about it, and they gave me a simple chart, things like "apple," "more milk," "stop," "please." Pretty cool.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:22 AM on May 4, 2004

A book to read.
posted by Gyan at 9:22 AM on May 4, 2004

We know some people who taught their toddler sign language (don't know if it was ASL or not) while he was still mostly pre-verbal, and subsequently ended up taking him to speech therapy to get him to use verbal speech because he was rejecting it in favor of signing.
posted by briank at 9:25 AM on May 4, 2004

This is what I've heard as well - kids are supposed to learn to speak when the rest of us do, so why rush them with a different language?
posted by agregoli at 9:53 AM on May 4, 2004

That's what I was thinking shoepal. I wonder what the baby sign language equivalent of "I wanna crap in a bowl" is.
posted by dr_dank at 9:56 AM on May 4, 2004

My sister-in-law taught my niece a few basic signs ("please," "more"), and from what I saw, that extra communication tool greatly reduced the scope and scale of the frustrated-screaming-baby stage. That same little girl babbles constantly, with more and more real words mixed in all the time, so I can't see any harmful impact to her verbal progression.

I plan to try the same approach if and when my own time as a parent comes. How could it hurt to introduce additional phonemes and/or languages early in development, as long as you do so sensibly and in moderation?
posted by clever sheep at 10:05 AM on May 4, 2004

On the other hand, it seems a lot of the delay in talking is a fine muscle control issue more than a cognitive development issue. I don't know if the "kids aren't supposed to be able to communicate" idea really holds a lot of water.

Most of the websites claim that the signing either has no effect or a slight positive effect on verbal development, but they're pro-signing sites, so they would.
posted by Karmakaze at 10:07 AM on May 4, 2004

I'm a hearing child of deaf parents, so I grew up in a situation where learning ASL at a young age wasn't just an experiment but a necessity. For what it's worth, I also learned to speak and read at a pretty early age. I don't know if the two are related, but I don't think getting a head start on communicating is a bad thing.
posted by turaho at 10:11 AM on May 4, 2004

We've done this with both of our kids, but only some very basic baby-talk ("Eat", "Drink","More","Hurt","Help", etc.) My daughter is 4 years old now and is a complete jabberbox. She remembers some of the signs, but really is 100% verbal, and quite skillful (proud parent speaking). My boy is 15 months old, hasn't really spoken yet (close, but nothing definitive), but he can sign "Drink", "Milk", "More", and "Help", and gets his point across just great more often than not. (It's unbelievably cute to see this little guy, when I say to him "What do you want?" and he does the "milk" sign madly, smiling - it's a one-handed cow-milking motion).

For us, it has been a real help. Far better than the guessing game of "Why is he/she crying... diaper? Hungry? Thirsty?" I'd recommend ASL rather than made-up languages, just makes sense, plus my daughter has recognized some signs she's seen other people do. Certainly nothing wrong with it in my experience. Briank - the experience you describe, that's the first time I've ever heard of something like that happening (sounds possible though).

Another somewhat tangential, yet interesting ASL story - my brother has autism. He's 34 now, and is somewhat verbal (lives in a group home). He was totally non-verbal, basically equivalent to a toddler, until he was 10 or 11 years old. From what we (family and teachers) could tell, he just could not form the lasting mental connection between a word and an object/concept/action. Along came an experimental teaching tool - ASL for autistic children. His hearing is just fine, but they tried this anyhow.

Amazingly, he could associate the signs with objects/concepts/actions far better than he could do so with words. Then, he had no trouble associating words with those signs. It's like there was a mental traffic block preventing verbal-to-real-world relationships, and the use of ASL Signs created a working detour. He made up for lost time, and eventually dropped the signs altogether. His vocabulary is still limited, but he can pretty much understand and respond to almost any basic day-to-day conversation.
posted by kokogiak at 10:12 AM on May 4, 2004

By the way, my first sign was cookie. Screw that please and thank you crap.
posted by turaho at 10:13 AM on May 4, 2004

We started teaching our son ASL when he was about 7 months old, and by 9 or 10 months, he could do some signs. We started with Sign with Baby as our resource, but have moved on to a selection of ASL sites that show quicktime movies. At 16 months, he knows all the signs I do, and so we're learning more together.

It's been a big help from a parenting perspective. I think it empowers the child earlier because it gives them a way to communicate their needs in a method other than just crying, and it makes parenting more effective because you can fulfill those needs faster and in response to their communication attempts.

As to the ability to talk, my pediatrician says he's right on target for his age. I've noticed that as he starts to say words, he's dropped the sign from his vocabulary. For instance, he never signs "mommy" or "daddy" anymore, he just says it. So, I'll be interested to see how much sign language he retains once he's got a clear and steady vocabulary.
posted by dejah420 at 10:34 AM on May 4, 2004

ASL and others are languages, but something a parent makes up would not be a language. Gesturing is not language. ASL (and Sign in general) is not merely gesturing.

Yes, many signs are gesturally figurative...but many aren't.

There was a common prejudice for a long time that signed languages weren't "real" languages, in the sense that the relatively new science of linguistics has come to understand language. But then the linguists looked closely at Sign, and discovered that it was a lot more complex than they thought, and that it satisfied every requirement they understood for the definition of "language".

On the other hand, pre-language gestural systems that spontaneously evolve among a non-speaking cohort (deaf twins, an isoalted deaf population) are not languages in the technical sense—they don't meet the various requirements.

But what's really interesting (and what actually happened with today's signed languages) is that if you have a group that develops a pre-language genstural system, and then a new generation of people are exposed to this as their "native language", then those people organically modify and complete the pre-language into a full-blown, honest-to-goodness language.

This probably has happened spontaneously and repeatedly in the past; but until early last century, at least as far as we know, no one recognized that deaf people weren't mentally disabled, they were moved around, seperated from each other, and various things such that a long-standing community using a signed language as a native language didn't persist.

A French priest working with deaf street urchins noticed that they communicated with gestures, and he took the radical step of trying to communicate with them (and assuming there was a point to the exercise) with those gestures. He built a school. Eventually, a real language was born. He visited the US, and some US educators and clergy visited France. The French Sign became the basis for the Sign in the burdgeoning US deaf education initiative.

This is why, in terms of language families, ASL and French Sign are very closely related and comprehensible to each's native speakers. ASL has pretty much nothing to do with English, by the way. ASL and what is called "signed English" are different things. Signed English isn't a language, except in the sense that it's English. It is not the language that Deaf Americans natively speak.

I imagine that most parents that use Sign with their infants will be effectively creating an analogue of signed English, and not teaching their children to natively Sign. They wouldn't be able to anyway, really, unless they were relatively fluent in ASL. Much more than knowing a few helpful signs, anyway.

Paging LanguageHat. Is the LanguageHat alert beacon powered up?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:36 AM on May 4, 2004

kokogiak, you SO have to read this book if you haven't already. It's by a speech and language pathologist whose son had a very similar set of issues, and it discusses how she and her other children, along with her professional colleagues, helped him to learn how to communicate effectively in a verbal world.

Re: the "hearing babies learn to sign": I think it's a great idea in principle. However, living as I do in a crazy university town, I've seen a number of parents turn it into a bizarre competition, so I'm a little skeptical.

The signed conversations I've had with pre-verbal children are eerily like Koko the gorilla. I also wonder why people don't teach children actual ASL "words" and instead come up with different signs for the same context, even when the ASL sign is quite simple.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:38 AM on May 4, 2004

Sorry, Kokogiak--let's try that again. The book is Maverick Mind by Cheri Florance, Ph. D.

EBligh, my lovely husband went to a linguistics conference recently and heard a paper by someone who has been present as an observer as the Deaf community in Nicaragua formalizes its language for the first time. Mind-blowing. I'll try to find the reference...
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:42 AM on May 4, 2004

The signed conversations I've had with pre-verbal children are eerily like Koko the gorilla. I also wonder why people don't teach children actual ASL "words"

You know, I've seen people get a kind of creeped out look when the boy is empatically signing something and they have no idea what he's saying. You know that look on the faces of people in horror movies just before they suddenly realize that the doll is's that look. So, you know, teaching him sign does have entertainment value. heheh.

We're trying our best to use actual ASL words, phrases, etc. We may be getting the nuances wrong, because neither of us signed before the boy was born. But just like we don't speak baby talk to him, we try to use the signs that the ASL recommends.
posted by dejah420 at 10:48 AM on May 4, 2004

Interestingly enough, I have an acquaintance who is severely dyslexic, but managed to become perfectly fluent in ASL.
posted by naxosaxur at 11:09 AM on May 4, 2004

ASL and others are languages, but something a parent makes up would not be a language.

Since we're talking about one-word utterances, what's the difference, anyway?

This isn't a situation where complicated grammar and verb tenses and subject/object distinctions are required.
posted by beth at 11:15 AM on May 4, 2004

Out of curiosity, do you have any other deaf family members, turaho?
posted by dr_dank at 11:32 AM on May 4, 2004

The point of all of this isn't to make the children bi-lingual with ASL as a first language. The idea is to make it easier for the parent and child to communicate before the child is capable of speech.

To that end, it's not important to use ASL exclusively to teach your kid to sign. A lot of the signs are pretty complicated for infants to learn. For example, "father" in ASL is pretty difficult for an infant's coordination. Your kid may be more capable, but why waste your time frustrating your kid by forcing them to make a fist with an extended thumb, when you can make up a sign of your own that works for your kid? It's not like he's trying to talk to deaf people, he's trying to talk with you!

If you're interested in the effectiveness, I have a video (awful compression so the 56k inlaws can d/l it) of my kid asking for more ice cream. You can best see her sign the second time she does it, when she repeatedly points her right index finger at her left palm to ask for more ice cream.
posted by ringmaster at 11:39 AM on May 4, 2004

We have a 3 month old son and are looking forward to starting some simple signing. We're seeing it all over lately. Recently a dad had his 18 month old daughter sign "beautiful baby" for us at a craft fair. It was pretty neat. She spoke a word at the same time but it was nowhere as intelligible as the sign for beautiful.

Does anyone see any evidence that signs can be picked up as early as two months as claimed in the article?
posted by jacobsee at 12:00 PM on May 4, 2004

I wish LH would respond, or another linguist. But, as someone commented here, there's the idea that infant can learn Sign because they have the brain equipment for language aquisition but not the fine motor control for speech. That viewpoint assumes that you're providing an opportunity for the child to aquire language a bit earlier than they otherwise would have been able to.

An alternative view is that a minimal gestural system allows a child to communicate their needs more clearly than they would otherwise be able to achieve pre-language. In this view, anything is equivalent to anything else (learning to poo in a certain way to signal something, say), as long as it is within the ability of the child. It's not language. It's not even the beginning of language.

Yet another possibility is to be agnostic or undecided on this matter. Yet another is that developmentally, the second view of things gives way to the first view of things.

It seems to me that if you're keen on helping a child aquire language at the earliest possible age, they should be exposed to speech by native speakers of that language. For whatever reasons, children can learn Sign earlier than they can a spoken language.

If you just want to provide a mechanism for clearly communicating some basic needs, then it doesn't really matter what you choose, as long as it is within the child's capability.

In no case, excepting in the case of something a linguist might do, would what the parents make up be a "language".

Finally, I also make the distinction for sociopolitical reasons. That is, Sign is thought explicitly by some (or many) to be degenerate or proto-language, and this isn't true. Equating gesturing with "language" can implicitly encourage this misconception. (Or, alternatively, encourage a misconception that language is far simpler than it actually is.)
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:09 PM on May 4, 2004

I can also vouch for the basic utility of helping a small child express themselves before they've got the fine motor control and coordination to actually speak intelligibly. Our younger son has been trying to "speak" from a very early age (clearly telling stories, even jokes, etc.) but really didn't do anything but babble for a while.

In the meantime, my wife taught him some very simple signs--based on ASL, from what I know, but really approximations that are as close as a baby can really come--and it helped a lot with the basic "I'm hungry", "More", "I'm wet" type communications. Not the remarkable sophistication some folks have apparently achieved, but a big for us and for him.

He's endlessly verbal now, so it definitely didn't have a negative impact. If anything, it helped move him into the world of genuine communications earlier, and gave him a head start. Certainly can't hurt more than the "goo-goo gah-gah" baby talk we all grew up with.
posted by LairBob at 12:24 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh:That is, Sign is thought explicitly by some (or many) to be degenerate or proto-language, and this isn't true.

Can you expound?
posted by Gyan at 12:37 PM on May 4, 2004

Interesting. Right now my 12 month old calls everything "that that", so it would be cool if he could be a little more, uh, specific about his needs. Think I'll check this out. Thanks for the links.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 1:07 PM on May 4, 2004

In an academic sense psycholinguistics is very much distinct from linguistics which is very much distinct from developmental psychology, though all are studied under the banner of cognitive science.
posted by snarfodox at 1:14 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh> Sign is thought explicitly by some (or many) to be degenerate or proto-language, and this isn't true.

Gyan> Can you expound?

Presumably Ethereal Bligh is referring to the work of William Stokoe.
posted by snarfodox at 1:23 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh: I think that all we parents care about is that our infants (who can't talk) can have a way to relate their basic needs without resorting to continuous cryptic screaming.

But if you put it to point, at base a language is the set of symbols and their rules for use. It seems pretty clear to me that any thinking person can develop a language in this sense, even a rudimentary one of gestures between parent and child. If a child understands the symbols and applies the rules appropriately, then how is that not a language? In your view, what more would be required to call this behavior "language"?
posted by ringmaster at 1:27 PM on May 4, 2004

We hipsters in Brooklyn take our children to Sign A Song. Where they incorporate ASL with songs. I was a skeptic, but it was fun for the parents and the kids involved. We're going back in the fall.
posted by turbanhead at 1:41 PM on May 4, 2004

I'm not a linguist. A linguist would need to answer your question. But the whole field is (now, certainly) built around the notion that "language" is something specifically distinct from, um, mere "symbolism". There's ideology in this notion, but it's also empirical. Also, perhaps I should have made this clear, but in this context "language" is a technical, specifically, linguistic term. It shouldn't be confused with "computer languages" or "communication" in general.

Specifically, human languages aren't arbitrary. What you're describing is a formal system, and a formal system can be anything symbolic with rules. Human languages apparently can't be. This goes into some deep waters and conflicts that I'm not qualified to deal with.

But, let's put it this way. When people set out to study languages, they discovered certain consistent rules. They also discovered that all languages share a set of minimal, um, constructs. Making up from scratch a set of signs to represent different things and actions would be very unlikely to satisfy either condition, but the latter is the most relevant here. This is what people do with a pre-language, of course, but the interesting part is what happens when the next generation (the first native speakers) gets ahold of it and inevitably satisfies both these conditions by altering and completing it. The deep waters implied here, basically, are that the schema for human languages is innate. This is why linguists are so hostile to the idea that animals other than humans could use language.

How this relates to the history of Sign and linguists is that, as I said, it was only relatively recently that Sign was thought to satisfy those conditions mentioned above. (See snarfodox's link) Instead, it was thought to be more like what I'm calling "pre-language", merely an extensive set of gestural representations. This created a lot of hostility against deaf people learning and using sign natively. It "wasn't real language". That's why this is a touchy subject for deaf people. I don't really know, actually, if anyone still believes this explicitly, but I have little doubt that someone does. But you can see that it is something many people could, and probably do, believe implicitly.

Also, Sign didn't even exist until it was allowed and encouraged to flourish in France and the US, and then elsewhere, as Dead education spread. (Well, again, maybe there were cross-generational continuing communities of deaf people that have existed in human history that developed a signed language(s), but I'm pretty sure that there were none, and are none, extent that are not part of the Sign family that began in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.) And, then, what later happened was that in the US, there was this awful movement to eliminate the teaching of Sign in deaf schools because it was thought to interfere with the acquisition of speech. This was only rectified throughout most of the US by the early sixties (but still not everywhere).
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:55 PM on May 4, 2004

Well, I'm not LanguageHat, and I'm not a (professional) linguist, but I do have quite a bit of Linguistic coursework under my belt, and I've studied American Sign Language and its linguistics pretty extensively (and a little bit of developmental psychology), so maybe I can comment a bit.

Ethereal Bligh- You are, indeed very correct on a number of points. Simple iconic gesturing is in no way a language, but when learned by preverbal children, that gestural system becomes a true language. In fact, this is very much the way that new languages are "born". In many ways, languages are born, created, and wholly the domain of children from the ages of 0-7. While there is undoubtedly many more Sign languages born (owing to the isolation of the signers and the lack of other linguistic input) (See the fascinating example of Nicaraguan Sign Language for more info), you can see a very similar language development process in mixed-auditory-language situations. Adults of different language background who are forced to communicate will generally develop what is known as a "pidgin', a mix of simple words and concepts from both languages that become the basis for rudimentary communication between those adults. However, the grammar of a pidgin is exceedingly simple, and has very few words. What's really amazing is when the children of the pidgin speakers grow up in this environment, they take the psuedo-language of the pidgin and in their ears and mouths, it truly blossoms: a complex grammer emerges, there is widespread word coinage, and soon, a Creole is born. A truly new language, born from the unsteady pidgin beginnings. Creoles are fascinating topics, because according to some Linguists, their grammar represents a window into the essential fundamental grammar that (supposedly) pervades all the languages on earth.

As for the Baby-Sign debate, it's complex matter. The explosive popularity of Baby-Sign (hearing parents teaching their pre-talking hearing babys ASL signs) is generally not much of a language-acquisition situation. Since the parents are not fluent (or even rudimentary) signers themselves, the signs are simply used to facilitate communication, since the muscle control and laryngeal physiology hasn't fully developed, even though the linguistic faculty (in the brain) already has kicked in. So, while I'm wholly in favor of more hearing people having an understanding of ASL, their baby's aren't learning ASL, but rather a rudimentary communication system (which admittedly, from all of the reseach, helps a lot, since the baby can more fully communicate his needs, at an earlier age). So, no, it's not a language per se. (And even if a linguist did it, making up a new one wouldn't be a language at all. It'd just be an artifical communcation system, until children learn it natively (and probably in the process make it something quite different...). For example, see Esperanto, or for a sign equivilant, Gestuno, the international sign 'language').

This is why, as Sidhedevil points out, baby-sign can resemble the communications of the great apes who've been taught signs. In both cases, they are using one or two word utterances with no grammar to speak of. Syntax being the defining hallmark of a true language, neither is truly linguistic communication. The difference is that a baby *can* learn ASL and communicate in full linguistic competency, while a gorilla or chimp never will.

Now, that said, the more interesting topic is that of Second-Language Acqusition in a mixed sign and verbal environment. As any linguist will tell you, to become fully bilingual, you have to start early, and be consistent. That means exposing your child to fluent language production in the second language, as well as practice in producing it, and it has to be started before 5-6 years of age. That's the difficult part, especially since most Americans are monolingual. There is a silver lining, however. The extent that your child needs language contact is truly very minimal. If I recall correctly, the "magic number" for language exposure is 10 hours a week. That's all it takes to raise a bingual child, and with bilingual babysitters or daycare, that's most of right there. Additionally, if the parent develops some ability to sign (or speak) the second language, they can provide a richer environment for the child to develop his language skills (it's not same as being a fluent bilingual parent, of course, but...).

Why all the effort to become fluent in another language, specifically a signed language like ASL? Well, the benefits are astounding. Cognitive, educational, intelligence and (of course) language ability are benefitted by being bilingual. Furthermore, ASL is highly visual and involves as part of its grammar a particularly complex use of space as a referent. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Studies have shown that native signers (even bilingual hearing native signers like CODAs) have significantly increased visual and spatial abilities.

Gyan- I can try to dip my toes into the discussion, but beware, as emotions run high when people start debating sign as a language, and educational methods in particular.

What Ethereal Bligh is referring to (and pretty accurately, in my opinion) is the fact that for decades, sign langauge has been derided as something less than a true language. Because it is purely gestural, people for a long time considered it to be mere pantomime. Furthermore (this is opinion, of course), the puritanical definitions of what is done in polite company often had quite strict taboos against gesturing, especially animated gesturing. I'm sure people can remember their grandparents or other relatives imploring children, "Don't talk with your hands!". All of thise came together with the late 18th and 19th century movement for Eugenics, and the irrational fear of disability, to provide a quite neagtive environment for Deaf signers. (Look no further than Alexander Graham Bell for one of the most vitriolic and hateful screeds against deaf people ever written. "A memoir on the formation of a deaf variety of the human race" is an absolutely chilling dehumanization of a group of people. In it, Bell argues that sign should eradicated, and that deaf people should never teach other deaf people, nor ever 'breed' with one another. Creepy stuff.) The ascendancy of the "oral" method for teaching deaf children (a fantastically horrible idea from a linguistic standpoint), very nearly eradicated ASL as a living language. Deaf students were forbidden from using sign, from learning sign, from communicating in any way other than lipreading and speaking. While modern linguistics and the work of that Stokoe pioneered have to some degree combatted the "ASL is not real" perception, there is a very real movement to reinstitute Oral-only education. The gorilla sign studies have provided fuel to fire of debate, since the underlying attitude is that ASL is so simple, so basic, so rudimentary, that even an ape can learn it. Furthemore, animal communication scientists are so eager to proclaim that apes have language, that they ignore the fact that the ape communciation looks nothing like ASL, nor anything like any human language. But people see apes signing "Koko ball" and they think that's what sign is limited to: simple utterances.

On preview: more good stuff from Ethereal Bligh, with one correction: *ASL* didn't exist until Clerc in France and Gallaudet in Martha's Vineyard. Many other Sign languages acorss the world existed before (and some came after). BSL, LSQ, and JSL are other examples.
posted by Eldritch at 2:04 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh:But the whole field is (now, certainly) built around the notion that "language" is something specifically distinct from, um, mere "symbolism".

Ah, ok.
posted by Gyan at 2:05 PM on May 4, 2004

I want to teach my baby to IM. That way it can reach me when I'm at work.
posted by alms at 2:32 PM on May 4, 2004

Thanks for the informed commentary, Eldritch.

I wasn't aware that oral-only deaf education was making a resurgance—that horrifies me.

I'm a little conflicted about the issues you touch upon in your post because while I think that current linguistic doctrine is largely correct, I disagree when it comes to animal communication.

I don't mean to muddy the waters with my objections, because it may mislead onlookers. I suppose I should say that I fully or nearly fully agree with the descriptive conclusions that linguistics has made about human languages, somewhat with the implications for neurology, much less so with the inferrences about evolutionary biology, and not at all epistemologically (although its unclear to me how many linguists have such explicit or implicit epistemological views, but I feel like I detect them every now and then). If you understand the distinctions I am making above, you'll understand why think animal language aquisition might be possible while still pretty much agreeing with what linguistics thinks about language as it understands it. Related to this is a skepticism on my part about an integral language organ (not a skepticism about something that is functionally a language organ for humans; just that it is integral).

Thanks for the correction about the existence and relationships of other signed languages. That was bad on my part, I'm sorry to have attempted (but hopefully failed) to spread falsities. And what was the time-frame for Clerc and Gallaudet? Did I get that wrong? I had it in my head that deaf education didn't exist until their time, and that it was mid to late nineteenth century or thereabouts. But it was a pretty short time before it was nearly destroyed by Bell's movement?

(To be fair to Bell, which I'm loathe to do but it should be done, Bell's wife was deaf and this was why it was an important issue to him. He just got it all wrong and did a lot of damage, and is still doing a lot of damage.)
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:32 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh> The deep waters implied here, basically, are that the schema for human languages is innate.

I can pick up the thread here as a cognitive scientist, though I probably shouldn't. Essentially the argument was that language is too complex a thing to be absorbed by a child in the short period of time in which they manage to accomplish it utilising the limited and imperfect utterances that their environment makes available to them. At this point I would usually launch in to an argument against this idea using complex systems theory and lots of references, but I'll confine my comments in this case to saying that a very small number of rules of interaction can be used to describe an extremely complex end-product system.
Before complex systems theory however the idea was that humans are somehow preprogrammed to be able to pick up language rules, which led to a lot of research looking for fundamantal rules that are shared by all languages. I have great difficulty recalling any 'fundamental rule' that wasn't subsequently overturned by reference to a real-world-language counter-example.
New research now tends towards the opposite conclusion: that languages evolved in such a way as to be easily absorbed by human speakers. My alma mater has published some fascinating research in support of that theory.
posted by snarfodox at 2:43 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh- Your timing is correct . The First school for the deaf in the US was pretty much correct. Clerc came to Martha's vineyard in 1815 (and with him, deaf education, even though Europe had been using varying methods of instruction with deaf pupils for decades before). The attacks on sign-based education coincided with Eugenics, around 1890-1930 or so, IIRC. Bell published "Memoir..." in 1884. I was just correcting the statement that Sign (all sign languages) only started when ASL was being created. Of course, sign languages (of different sorts) have existed a long as deaf people have.

As for the resurgence of oral method education, I wouldn't call it new or developing, simply something that will always be there. 90 percent of all deaf babies are born to hearing parents. Those parents have an understandable desire for their children to be like them. They, however, sometimes make linguistic and educational choices that are simply very bad for the development of a deaf child. Likewise, there are organized groups of like-minded (and misguided) people who maintain that oral education is good.

snarfodox and Ethereal Bligh- Developmental psychology, in combination with cognitive neuroscience, provide some pretty compelling evidence (in my opinion) that language (as it is defined by linguistics), is innate to precisely one species: us. Looking at lesion studies and FMRI, it is pretty easy to see the incredible specilization of brain areas for language capacity. The timecourse of infant language development follows almost precisely the timecourse of widespead myelinization of CNS neurons, the overgrowth and pruning of both structure and fuction of the CNS match up with the preverbal infant's ability to recognize and produce many more phonemes than they will eventually use in their 'Mother toungue', the innate turn-taking timecourse of breast-suckling match up to many models of human dialogue and discourse involving turn-taking behaviors, the preferential listening behaviors that babies exhibit maximize the linguistic input the baby recieves, the evidence goes on and on. I think there is little evidence that humans aren't hugely specialized for language. As for the animal side, you can't call any of what gorillas, dolphins, songbirds, prarie dogs, or whales use as communication "language" without stretching the definition of "language" so thin that it loses all meaning. I don't think that language is impossible for a non-human species simply by the circular argument that only humans have human language, but rather based on the evidence. In my mind, the evidence that human language is innate, and limited to humans exclusively, is pretty convincing.

The question of whether people evolved to use language, or whether languages are adapted to the evolution of language capacity is interesting, but a bit of a false dichotomy, I'd think. I'd propose that both mechanisms are very much a part of the phenomenon, and are hardly mutually exclusive. One needs look no further than Creoles and Pidgins to see that humans take, modify, and use language in new and interesting ways, to suit their needs. Likewise, the neurobiology and neurophysiology evidence provide pretty strong evidence that language capacity evolved in very specific ways to facilitate a very specific means of linguistic communication.
posted by Eldritch at 3:26 PM on May 4, 2004

"I think there is little evidence that humans aren't hugely specialized for language."—Eldritch
How about the fact that language aquisition isn't innate? You can't just claim that naturally an isolated individual would be stunted neurologically when it's the case that groups of language-deprived individuals also don't innately aquire language on their own. A big part of what you and I've been saying is that language requires a cultural context.

To my mind, that does a fair bit of damage to the strong position that everything (that makes human language what it is) is innate. However, all the evidence strongly indicates that much of the language faculty is innate; but that doesn't disallow that other species have evolved analagous, more limited, portions of the same thing and, given a cultural context, develop something that is functionally a language.

See, I guess it's because I haven't studied linguistics, but it seems to me that there's a profound anthropecentric assumption and attitude permeating it that, frankly, I don't see the justification for. And it's a fact that our repeated anthropic chauvinisms have consistently led us astray in our science in the past; I'm deeply skeptical of human exceptionalism.

I suspect snarfodox will come along and answer some of your points; but, clearly, I'm on his side of the fence on this matter. Because, frankly, what I think is happening here is confirmation bias. Some anthropecentric assumptions were enshrined within linguistics formally and informally, and a confirmation bias has continued to reinforce them. I don't doubt that enough of human language is innate to make it significantly distinct from any other possible variety of language. I also have no doubt that there's not another species on this planet capable of utilizing language as we do. But there's something here that, to me, smacks of a linguistic version of dualism: language, like consciousness (in the dualist view) is unique, quantized, integral, and qualitatively dinstinct from everything else. And humans have it and nothing else does or can. That's all, to me, a bunch of bad juju.

It's also reminscent, to me, of the idealized notion of human cognition: that it's something like a general purpose computing machine. Human cognition is abstracted into human reasoning, which is abstracted into generalized reasoning and mathematics, for example. That doesn't mean that human cognition is a single integral formal system. I lean towards the evolutionary psychology view of a cognition as a cluster of related adaptations. For various reasons, all normal humans have all those adaptations; but that doesn't mean that another species might not have some, but not others. I strongly suspect that a good portion of what language is is a cluster of similar adaptations that all humans have and, within the context of a culture, utilize in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It looks like a single thing because, at this level of description, it is.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:12 PM on May 4, 2004

I have yet to see a convincing argument for any universal rule of language that can't be shot down using real-world-language counter-examples except perhaps structure dependency. A fairly simple neural network can absorb structure dependent rules from a limited set of example data just as easily as a human.

Eldritch's comment is descriptive of 'Nativism', the theory that humans are genetically predisposed to learn languages through some kind of Chomskyesque hardwired “language acquisition device” that comes pre-loaded with a universal grammar.

Ethereal Bligh's comment sounds like the 'Representational Redescription' model of development where parts of the brain develop to handle task domains such as understanding language or social interaction as the need arises.

In my opinion the latter theory fits all of the available evidence, but without the encumbrance of a universal grammar. Enormous emergent complexity from a small set of rules and the previously referenced evidence that languages tend to evolve characteristics that are easily learned takes care of the concern that infants don't have enough time or exposure to absorb a language.

As the brain matures in a developmentally normal human it is also subject to a reduced trophic factor. A less active growth/die-back cycle means less brain plasticity. Less plasticity means that we have fewer resources available to dedicate to complex general task domains: hence critical periods for language development in developmental psychology.
posted by snarfodox at 4:49 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh- No nonhuman animal has language capacity. That is not from a lack of "cultural context." (As Ape language studies have proved).

The human brain is immensely specialized in literally thousands of ways to understand and produce language. The human body, from mouth to lungs to diaphragm to lips to toungue to pharynx are specialized in ways that evolutionary biologists have found only one plausible adaptive reason for: language use. So: are linguists and cognitive neuroscientists simply suffering from confirmation bias and anthropocentrism, or is there simply a preponderance of evidence that unambiguously demonstrates that humans are the only species (so far) that have innate language capacity? What I'm getting at is this: humans may, in fact, have innate language capacity, without anyone involved being anthropocentric.

And as a side note: there are many functions of the developing brain that are dependent on experience and input. To say that language is less likely to be innate because it depends on linguistic input during a critical period is like saying that vision isn't innate because if you put a baby in cave when he's born, he won't be able to see when he's an adult.

I'd be interested to hear more about what you think the "anthropocentric" assumptions are that underly linguistics are.
posted by Eldritch at 4:56 PM on May 4, 2004

What weight does the Fauconnier/Turner argument have? That a critical threshold of conceptual blending allowed humans to develop language.
posted by Gyan at 5:09 PM on May 4, 2004

snarfodox- I, too, have always been a bit uncomfortable with Chomsky's notion of a universal grammar. It never seemed to fully be able to encompass the full range and variety of human communication. It was an elegant theory, however.

Representational Redescription, as you describe it, unfortunately, doesn't fit *all* of the evidence. If linguistic input shapes and defines the parts of the brain that handle linguistic competence, then the heterogenousness of linguistic input that babies recieve (which language, from whom, how much, when, etc) should result in quite different structural organization of both the perisylvan areas and the distally-located language-associated areas between individuals. However, this simply isn't the case. Neuroanatomy is remarkably consistent across individuals, and the important language-associated areas especially so. They are highly specilized, and very tightly defined. Now areas of the brain that *are* highly adaptable based on experience and change quite significantly between individuals, like motor maps, are never as narrowly defined, and never have such a specific recruitment of function as language-associated areas.

Now, this is not to say that I think linguistic input doesn't drive the development of the language-associated areas, or that language development is a mechanistic process. Instead, I would propose (as I said above) that linguistic input and language faculty, both structurally and functionally, are highly interdependent and dynamic systems.
posted by Eldritch at 5:16 PM on May 4, 2004

Ah, but a baby in a cave is able to see as an adult, he just can't do anything with the information.

The linguists are suffering from confirmation bias, the cognitive neuroscientists aren't...because they don't make the sweeping claims that the linguists do.

I don't know the history of linguistics vis a vis animal language studies; but I'll make a prediction that you can prove or disprove: did linguists deny that it was possible that primates could do what they later were later proven to do? That is, did they define "language" up? I bet they did. There is a pattern to this that mirrors lots of other disciplines.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:24 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh: Ah, but a baby in a cave is able to see as an adult, he just can't do anything with the information.

posted by Gyan at 5:36 PM on May 4, 2004

Well, there are people who are blind from birth by, say, cataracts. They are removed in adulthood, and they aren't able to make sense of anything they see. Eventually, they can make out basic shapes. I'm pretty sure it's not that there's a problem with their eyes, it's in their brain's ability to process the information. Just as someone deprived from language aquisition as a child will have limited facility if they aquire some language later.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:40 PM on May 4, 2004

Eldritch: I should point out that I'm not arguing the fact that the ancestors of modern humans were creatures who survived and eventually thrived in part due to a series of adaptations that enabled them to communicate with each other more efficiently. Nor am I arguing that those adaptations have resulted in substantial neuroanatomical homogeneity. That similarity shouldn't be overstated however and tends to show up as task localisations in similar regions most of the time (sometimes there is a hemispheric shift), though this would be expected from organisms that have a vast mass of genetic information in common, including that which dictates development.

The charge of anthropocentrism comes from the observation that certain parts of acadaemia have choosen to define “language” in such a way as to fundamentally distinguish the way that humans communicate from the way that any other animal on the planet communicates.

I think the point that is being made is that you have to very seriously limit your definition of what a language can be to exclude all animal communication from language. That tends to also classify certain developmentally and intellectually impaired humans as being incapable of language, and I've met enough people who fit in to that category to not want to do that. Basically I don't need to draw a line in the sand dividing human language from prairie dog calls: we're talking about a sliding scale of complexity, with human language at one end of the spectrum and the complete absence of communication at the other.
posted by snarfodox at 5:47 PM on May 4, 2004

Well, to add to what Snarfodox said, the thing that bothers me is that while it's true that there's no reason that language couldn't be what Eldritch is saying it is, and that it may be; it's the case that this perspective mirrors most anthropocentric perspectives in the past that we later abandoned; and it the propononents of it are suspiciously similar in their tenacity about defending it. In all cases it is a matter of human exceptionalism that implicitly invokes all sorts of moral and philosophical issues.

It could be completely an accident that the linguists' position on this matter, both in substance and tone, is so reminiscent of, say, defenders of dualism (or even creationism), but it makes me very, very suspicious.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:57 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh: Then, in my opinion, your original statement is misleading.

This comes down to what 'seeing' is, and what 'making out shapes' is. Pardon my terminology which isn't standard but should be self-explanatory. Your original statement connotes that the subject experiences a standard visual quale, but isn't able to "lay atop" perceptual frameworks to categorize input into shapes, colors, shades, depth...etc. From my (incomplete) readings of Active Vision , my opinion is that the user does not perceive the standard quale. Just to make it clear, if as a thought experiment, you're were to take a "screenshot" of the user's visual input percept (I know that no such creature actually exists), the cataract's image wouldn't match with a regular subject's. Vision would eventually discriminate and finetune as a cascade of engrams left their footprints. But there wouldn't be any "information" for the baby to "make sense of". The information would arise as a result of making sense.
posted by Gyan at 5:58 PM on May 4, 2004

So, does no one know of Fauconnier/Turner's Network Model of Conceptual Integration?

I've added resources at Wikipedia for people to browse through.
posted by Gyan at 6:01 PM on May 4, 2004

Cool, Gyan. Thanks.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:07 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh- I can't say I have an extensive knowledge of what linguistics as a field said about the primate communication debate, beforehand. What I can say is that the linguistics I studied never spent any particular amount of time with pronouncements from on high, nor on venturing into animal behavior. There was always a brief note about the ape sign language studies, which amounted to little more than a citation about what the animal communication researchers found, and what it said about linguistics in general (not much, since there was a tiny vocabulary, and no syntax or morphology to speak of).

I don't know what "sweeping claims" linguists are guilty of making, either. My experiences with linguistics was that is ways always firmly grounded in describing structure of language.

snarfodox- Perhaps we shouldn't minimize the strucural homogeneity of language-associated structures as "Task localisations in similar regions most of the time," either, than. I've spent quite a bit of time fussing over neuroanatomy, and it's quite a bit more defined than that. Look no further than the meta-analyses of lesion locations that result in Wernicke's, Broca's and Transduction Aphasias, and you'll see how tightly defined they really are.

I do, however, have a problem redefining any animal communication as "language". Not because of anthropocentrism, but because it is inaccurate. Look at the hallmarks of language: a rule-based system for communicating ideas via arbitrary symbols. The sliding scale you make reference to is communication, not language. There are a lot of gradations to communications, but not to language.
posted by Eldritch at 6:09 PM on May 4, 2004

So you're saying that from the back of the eyes and along the early pathway into the brain, the eyes (in our example) are not working properly? I don't think that's right.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:09 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh- I can't say that I have any agenda to push (but being compared to a creationist? That hurts. =) ).

Rather, I've spent some time learning about linguistics and sign language; I pursued some coursework in language development and developmental psychology; and I used to work in neuroscience. I'm not trying to argue from authority; rather I just find the topic fascinating, and it's something I (fingers crossed) think I know a fair amount about. I've been annoyed in the past in regards to the cavalier nature with which proponents of animal language research have made claims that simply didn't mesh with the body of knowledge of linguistics (not the dogma, whatever that may be), ASL linguistics, or cognitive neuroscience. I can see the appeal of your line of reasoning: anthropocentrism, like many other flawed ideologies should best be avoided. However, the mere invocation of them won't banish the preponderance of evidence, of which I certainly have my opinions about.
posted by Eldritch at 6:20 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh: So you're saying that from the back of the eyes and along the early pathway into the brain, the eyes (in our example) are not working properly? I don't think that's right.

The ocular surface is working properly. And so are the signal relays. The starved visual perceptual consciousness does not perceive the standard quale. The standard quale is formed as it is finetuned. To take a contrived example which is inaccurate in practice, if I show the isolated adult a horizontal stick with its two halves painted with different colors, say orange and purple. This encounter is the first exposure of both of the specific color quales to this adult. The adult will see the two halves are different colors but won't perceive the colors themselves, at _any perceptual level_. As the engrams pour in, finetuning occurs and then the colors are perceived.

The root of this kind of thinking lies in the root philosophy that language are symbols; signal is noise :- there is no meaning. If your root philosophy differs, then, well, we might want to discuss something else :)
posted by Gyan at 6:54 PM on May 4, 2004

Eldritch: I should just note that as far as I am concerned your contribution to this discussion has been brilliant, despite the fact that we've collectively derailed a MeFi thread pretty thoroughly.

I've dissected human brains before and the real brain doesn't quite fit the textbook so well. Those functional areas (Wernicke's and Broca's) can only really be located with any accuracy by having a live subject provide you with some feedback. They're really more in 'similar regions' between patients, hence my initial characterisation of them. In any case, an overwhelming genetic similarity between all humans accounts for those developmental/structural similarities.

In terms of animal communication/language I seriously doubt that we have the time and space to mount a convincing argument. The semantics alone could take a few dozen extra posts. I also take it as a given that we would have to argue about individual experimental protocols in the various animal 'language/communication' studies, which you have no doubt found unconvincing. I will say though that it can be valuable to consider what any definition of language may mean for certain real-world languages which, as I've mentioned, tend to be incredibly diverse with very few, if any, universal features.

Gyan: I think I'll find it hard to respond to that comment without further derailing this thread. If you wait a day and post it on the front page, I'm in...
posted by snarfodox at 6:54 PM on May 4, 2004

snarfodox- Many thanks for the kudos. It's been an enlightening discussion over here, too. I suppose I should step off my soapbox about linguistics stuff, for the sake of the thread. =)

In any case, baby sign is a great tool for parents to connect with their infants. As a certain side-effect, it gives people a wider view of the linguistic world, and perhaps increases the visibility of Deaf issues all around, which is never a bad thing.
posted by Eldritch at 7:08 PM on May 4, 2004

Last comment from me (I think): Ethereal Bligh & Gyan, you might be interested in this [778 kB PDF] copy of “Long-term deprivation affects visual perception and cortex” from Nature Neuroscience some time late last year. That PDF is the only copy I can find online I'm afraid.
posted by snarfodox at 7:27 PM on May 4, 2004

I don't want to interrupt the train of thought here, but I just wanted to thank everyone for a fascinating discussion. This is why I love Metafilter.

dr_dank: My parents are the only deaf people in my family. Feel free to drop me an email at the address listed in my profile if you have any other questions.
posted by turaho at 8:14 PM on May 4, 2004

First, major kudos to Eldritch and Ethereal Bligh for outstanding comments and information.

There has been some minor concern voiced in this thread about kids rejecting speech if they are taught Baby Sign.

We know some people who taught their toddler sign language (don't know if it was ASL or not) while he was still mostly pre-verbal, and subsequently ended up taking him to speech therapy to get him to use verbal speech because he was rejecting it in favor of signing.

It is unlikely that this specific case was a situation of a child rejecting speech in favor of sign, but rather the child found it easier to sign than to use his voice. If he was pre-verbal, something was developmentally non-standard anyway.

There are plenty of hearing children of deaf adults who do attend speech therapy because they have no standard English model. But Baby Sign should be used in conjunction with speech, and most children do make the switch when they are able.
posted by etoile at 8:16 PM on May 4, 2004

Yes, thanks and respect to everyone all around, it's been a nice, productive thread where I think we all learned new things. And my implicit comparison of you, Eldritch, to a Creationist was a low blow and I should have disavowed any real comparison--except in the sense of the point I was making about certain chauvinisms having similar characteristics and that a point of view that shares those set of characteristics makes me suspicious. (Well, okay, I was also thinking about the linguistic hypothesis of the sudden and complete evolutionary appearance of a language organ--this point of view is part of the integral view of the language organ--and how the reasoning is reminiscent to me of the creationist "this complex interdependent structure couldn't have evolved since each part is necessary and thus the whole thing had to appear at once" argument.)

Gyan, I'm not entirely sure where you're going with that and I can only say that I likely do disagree with you since, really, I disagree with everyone since my epistemology is formalist on a theoretical level, realist on a practical level and I'm very picky about which stance is appropriate for a given context and very suspicious and critical of the near-universal tendency to impose a totalitarian context of any sort.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:17 PM on May 4, 2004

Ethereal Bligh: No offense but saying that one's practical philosophy is 'realist' doesn't convey much since I, too claim that my own philosophy is realist.

I'd actually earlier come across the case covered in snarfodox's link. Unfortunately, that doesn't and can't answer the question. The issue at hand, is I suspect, almost forever banished to subjectivity.
posted by Gyan at 2:37 AM on May 5, 2004

"Realist" meaning a naive physicalism. But only in practice, not in theory.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:42 AM on May 5, 2004

And I'm not sure what you mean by "philosophy", but I very specifically meant epistemology; that I make a distinction between theoretical and practical epistemology; and that in my case the former is completely formalist while the latter is materialist/empiricist (which is what I mean by "naive physicalist" and meant to imply with "realist"). I can't parse your statement that "there's no meaning" because I think that's a meaningless statement, given that its phrasing implies an unbounded assertion that "meaning does not exist". I am theoretically a formalist because I am relatively certain I cannot prove that meaning exists; and so when the context requires abstract rigor I am very careful about what I think can and cannot be asserted. On the other hand, I'm about to go to bed and I'm quite certain that my bed exists, and that its existence is independent of me. As a practical matter, I know this—subjectivity hardly enters into it. In this context, to deny that "meaning" exists is, frankly, lunacy. I have no difficulty at all hitting a sophomore philosophy major over the head with a big rock to prove a point about reality; nor do I have difficulty pressing a physicist, or, God forbid, an Objectivist, on how they think they can know anything about the universe they naively believe to, firstly, exist, and secondly, benignly present itself to them. This all involves basic epistemology; but I'm not aware of anyone else, as yet, that deals with all these issues in their totality as I do. That is to say, Reality and "reality" are both perfectly valid references, depending upon the context in which one would use those words. And this is more than I should say here on this matter. :)
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:18 AM on May 5, 2004

I'm going to take snarfodox's suggestion and open a thread tomorrow, but for now...

On the other hand, I'm about to go to bed and I'm quite certain that my bed exists, and that its existence is independent of me.

This comes down to the core of it. You do agree that should you throw away the mattress, disassemble the frame..etc then the bed as an entity ceases to exist? If so, the bed's existence is dependent on you. What is independent of you is the essence of being that generates both you and the bed, the "ultimate reality". In other words, emergent structures don't possess an independent identity operator. Now, qualia and "meaning" are emergent processes as well, that's what "meaning doesn't exist" means. The essence of mental cognition and the "objects" it deciphers are the same.
posted by Gyan at 5:27 AM on May 5, 2004

Couldn't you all have just signed the above in ASL?
posted by turbanhead at 8:59 PM on May 5, 2004

Just got here (I have no expertise in either ASL or child language, though the latter is about to change), so I'm glad to see that Eldritch has done such a splendid job of upholding the linguistic banner. (Ravin Dave is my usual replacement on these occasions, but I guess he didn't notice the thread.) Well commented, all!
posted by languagehat at 12:53 PM on May 6, 2004

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