Free Republic
Browse · Search
News/Activism
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

The origins of language: Signs of success
The Economist ^ | Feb 19th 2004 | Anon

Posted on 02/21/2004 6:37:52 AM PST by Pharmboy

Deaf people are making a profound contribution to the study of language


Ann Senghas
We all speak smile

JUST as biologists rarely see a new species arise, linguists rarely see a new language being born. You have to be in the right place at the right time, which usually you are not. But the past few decades have seen an exception. Linguists have been able to follow the formation of a new language in Nicaragua. The catch is that it is not a spoken language but, rather, a sign language which arose spontaneously in deaf children. Ann Senghas, of Columbia University, in New York, one of the linguists who has been studying this language, told the AAAS conference in Seattle about her discoveries. And Susan Goldin-Meadow, of the University of Chicago, who studies the spontaneous emergence of signing in deaf children, filled in the background by showing how such children use hand signals in a different way from everybody else.

The thing that makes language different from other means of communication is that it is made of units that can be combined in different orders to create different meanings. In a spoken language these units are words. In a sign language these units are gestures. Dr Senghas has been studying the way those gestures have evolved in Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL).

The language emerged in the late 1970s, at a new school for deaf children. Initially the children were instructed by teachers who could hear. No one taught them how to sign; they simply worked it out for themselves. By conducting experiments on people who attended the school at various points in its history, Dr Senghas has shown how NSL has become more sophisticated over time. For example, concepts that an older signer uses a single sign for, such as rolling and falling, have been unpacked into separate signs by youngsters.

Early users, too, did not develop a way of distinguishing left from right. Dr Senghas showed this by asking signers of different ages to converse about a set of photographs that each could see. One signer had to pick a photograph and describe it. The other had to guess which photograph was being described.

When all the photographs contained the same elements, merely arranged differently, older people, who had learned the early form of the language, could neither signal which photo they meant, nor understand the signals of their younger partners. Nor could their younger partners teach them the signs that indicate left and right. The older people clearly understood the concept of left and right, they just could not converse about it—a result that bears on the vexing question of how much language merely reflects the way the brain thinks about the world, and how much it actually shapes such thinking.

For a sign language to emerge spontaneously, though, deaf children must have some inherent tendency to tie gestures to meaning. Spoken language, of course, is frequently accompanied by gestures. But, as a young researcher, Dr Goldin-Meadow suspected that deaf children use gestures differently from those who can hear. In a 30-year-long project carried out on deaf children in America and Taiwan, whose parents can hear normally, she has shown that this is true.

Even deaf children who have no deaf acquaintances use signs as words. The order the signs come in is important. It is also different from the order of words in either English or Chinese. But it is the same, for a given set of signs and meanings, in both America and Taiwan.

Curiously enough, the signs produced by children in Spain and Turkey, whom Dr Goldin-Meadow is also studying, while similar to each other, differ from those that American and Taiwanese children produce. Dr Goldin-Meadow is not certain why that is. However, the key commonality is that their spontaneously created languages resemble fully-formed languages.

That result, if confirmed in other studies, could have profound implications. Another much-argued question in linguistics is whether there is some sort of grammatical template that acts as part of a language instinct and is wired into the brains of new-born children. Such a template would help a child to learn a language quickly. But the different grammars of actual languages suggest it cannot, assuming it does exist, be imposing itself too strongly. However, the sign languages of Dr Goldin-Meadow's children are entirely self-invented. If there is a deep structure, they are surely drawing on it directly. The order of their signs may thus be a direct reflection of what that structure is.

For now, Dr Goldin-Meadow is cautious. But it may turn out that the truth comes not out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, but from their hands.


TOPICS: Culture/Society; Front Page News
KEYWORDS: deaf; language; languageorigin; linguistics; origins; signlanguage; wiredin
Interesting stuff. Thought some of you might like to see this.
1 posted on 02/21/2004 6:37:52 AM PST by Pharmboy
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: PatrickHenry; thefactor
+Ping+
2 posted on 02/21/2004 6:45:11 AM PST by Pharmboy (History's greatest agent for freedom: The US Armed Forces)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Pharmboy
However, the key commonality is that their spontaneously created languages resemble fully-formed languages. [snip]

That result, if confirmed in other studies, could have profound implications. Another much-argued question in linguistics is whether there is some sort of grammatical template that acts as part of a language instinct and is wired into the brains of new-born children.

Now THAT is an interesting concept. I believe it could lead credence to the Tower of Bable story in scripture and how people could INSTANTLY begin speaking other languages.

3 posted on 02/21/2004 6:53:24 AM PST by JudyB1938
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Pharmboy
I'll read this later.....
4 posted on 02/21/2004 7:04:55 AM PST by rface (Ashland, Missouri)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: JudyB1938
Another much-argued question in linguistics is whether there is some sort of grammatical template that acts as part of a language instinct and is wired into the brains of new-born children.

It's not outside the realm of possibilities at all, and in fact, I think the idea probably explains the phenomenon quite well. There us a definite "language area" in your brain - "stroke out" the wrong areas and people can speak, but not understand language, or visa versa, or both understanding and speech can be destroyed.

5 posted on 02/21/2004 7:18:05 AM PST by realpatriot71 ("But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise . . ." (I Cor. 1:27))
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: Pharmboy
Another much-argued question in linguistics is whether there is some sort of grammatical template that acts as part of a language instinct and is wired into the brains of new-born children.

When he's not being an bloviating poseur and is doing what he's actually good at, this is the question that got Chomsky a professorship at MIT.

Transformational Grammar.

Fascinating stuff, also covered by many cultural anthropologists and also in the more ethereal realm by Gregory Bateson.

6 posted on 02/21/2004 7:22:43 AM PST by angkor
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: realpatriot71
There us a definite "language area" in your brain - "stroke out" the wrong area...

But it's clearly not a physical area of the brain, since many stroke victims do recover the ability to speak.

Scholars and researchers have been beating on this question for the last century, so it's equally interesting that there's no solid answer on it yet.

7 posted on 02/21/2004 7:26:39 AM PST by angkor
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 5 | View Replies]

To: Thud
FYI
8 posted on 02/21/2004 7:58:03 AM PST by Dark Wing
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: angkor
But it's clearly not a physical area of the brain, since many stroke victims do recover the ability to speak.

Actually, it is a physical area - Broca's and Wernikie's areas; left temporal lobe for most folks. The amount of recovery after a stroke is inversely poprotional to the length of time that neurons went without oxygen

9 posted on 02/21/2004 7:59:36 AM PST by realpatriot71 ("But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise . . ." (I Cor. 1:27))
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 7 | View Replies]

To: VadeRetro; jennyp; Junior; longshadow; Doctor Stochastic; js1138; RightWhale; general_re; ...
Interesting. But only for part of the ping list.
10 posted on 02/21/2004 8:02:55 AM PST by PatrickHenry (The universe is made for life, therefore ID. Life can't arise naturally, therefore ID.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 2 | View Replies]

To: realpatriot71
Actually, it is a physical area

Generally speaking that's true, e.g, language happens within the brain.

But the processes and mechanisms of language are complicated, and there is no single neurological study which locates all linguistic processes within any specific section of the human brain.

The best that has been posited is that various functions within the brain contribute to the processes of perception, syntax, motor control, and memory, all of which constitute language as a whole.

11 posted on 02/21/2004 8:32:22 AM PST by angkor
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 9 | View Replies]

To: angkor
But the processes and mechanisms of language are complicated, and there is no single neurological study which locates all linguistic processes within any specific section of the human brain. The best that has been posited is that various functions within the brain contribute to the processes of perception, syntax, motor control, and memory, all of which constitute language as a whole.

I can't disagree with anything you've said. The brain is interconnected in such a fashion that "language" as an idea or concept needs more than just the simple areas of the brain dealing with language and speech to correctly communicate in a larger executive context. However, I can kill a specific spot of brain and said person will no longer be able to understand language at all, no matter how well other functions are operating.

12 posted on 02/21/2004 8:47:25 AM PST by realpatriot71 ("But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise . . ." (I Cor. 1:27))
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 11 | View Replies]

To: Pharmboy
One my first papers as an undergrad actually dealt with this. It has been theorized that language first evolved as series of iconic hand gestures accompanied by gutteral vocalizations. These sounds later developed into the spoken language we have today. The theory would explain why both spoken and sign languages follow the same syntatical rules, as well as why deaf babies "babble" with their hands.

In my Master's program, I did a literature survey on neo-Darwinist approaches to the evolution of communication. If I have time, I'll see if I can dig up the reference list.

13 posted on 02/21/2004 8:52:21 AM PST by RightWingAtheist
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: realpatriot71; angkor
It has been postulated that the visual and linguistic modules are strongly correlated, and possibly even "split" from the same ancestral module. It would explain why we have have both a "spoken" and "gestural" grammar, as well as our abilities at writing and visual representation (drawing and sculpting, etc.), traits which can NOT be explained as being a result of selective evolutionary pressures, as language can.
14 posted on 02/21/2004 8:56:51 AM PST by RightWingAtheist
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 12 | View Replies]

To: Pharmboy

Judging by the way these kids are acting, I'd say they must be Kunich supporters.

15 posted on 02/21/2004 8:58:16 AM PST by RightWingAtheist
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: RightWingAtheist
Thank you for your informed reply.

And, by the way, although I fiercely defend the religionists against the left-wing secularists, I am your screen name.

16 posted on 02/21/2004 8:58:53 AM PST by Pharmboy (History's greatest agent for freedom: The US Armed Forces)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 13 | View Replies]

To: realpatriot71
OK, but back to the original point, I'm simply saying that the "language template" referred to in the article is not located in any specific physical section of the brain. It's a meta-function also associated with "learning" (which is of a higher order than mere syntax).

That's why I mentioned Bateson in my first post. He seemed to have a philosophical handle on the dynamics of learning itself, which might (or might not) be the meta-template that drives language.

Haven't studied this stuff in years, but it's interesting.

17 posted on 02/21/2004 9:04:04 AM PST by angkor
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 12 | View Replies]

To: angkor
OK, but back to the original point, I'm simply saying that the "language template" referred to in the article is not located in any specific physical section of the brain. It's a meta-function also associated with "learning" (which is of a higher order than mere syntax).

Interesting - language is an area that I don't know much about.

18 posted on 02/21/2004 9:09:20 AM PST by realpatriot71 ("But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise . . ." (I Cor. 1:27))
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 17 | View Replies]

To: RightWingAtheist
traits which can NOT be explained as being a result of selective evolutionary pressures, as language can.

Expand on that statement when you have a moment.

19 posted on 02/21/2004 9:11:15 AM PST by angkor
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 14 | View Replies]

To: Pharmboy
INTREP
20 posted on 02/21/2004 9:20:05 AM PST by LiteKeeper
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: angkor
btt
21 posted on 02/21/2004 9:26:04 AM PST by Ciexyz
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 11 | View Replies]

To: Pharmboy
My cat uses sign language too. When he puts his tail straight up into the air, he is saying feed me. He is obviously an accomplished grammarian, speaking a dialect of Proto-Feline.
22 posted on 02/21/2004 9:27:27 AM PST by stripes1776
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: angkor
All humans have the same brain structure, but reading and writing are not found across all cultures the way spoken and gesutral languages are, nor is there any satisfactory explanation as to account for how reading, writing and drawing might have evolved through selective pressure. They are exaptated, as opposed to evolved traits, which arise through the co-option of one feature for a purpose other than the evolved one. A good example of an exaptated feature are the hammer, anvil and stirrup bones in the inner ear, which are found in all mammals. These were originally part of the jawbones of our reptilian ancestors, and wound being pushed in to the ear as the jaw evolved into a more efficent single-boned structure for chewing. You can feel this evolutionary legacy every time you sit down to a meal-the reason you can't follow a conversation while chewin and swallowing is because your jaw keeps jutting upwards into the ear canal.
23 posted on 02/21/2004 9:27:32 AM PST by RightWingAtheist
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 19 | View Replies]

To: RightWingAtheist
It has been postulated that the visual and linguistic modules are strongly correlated, and possibly even "split" from the same ancestral module

Interesting, I pick up Bateson's Steps To An Ecology Of Mind, and here in the thesis "Redundancy And Coding" is the following:

"I suggest that this separate burgeoning evolution of kinesics and paralanguage alongside the evolution of verbal language indicates that our iconic communication servers functions totally different from those of language and, indeed, performs functions which verbal language is unsuited to perform."

Bateson's main argument is that kinesic and verbal communications exist independently for the sake of redundancy.

24 posted on 02/21/2004 9:31:12 AM PST by angkor
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 14 | View Replies]

To: RightWingAtheist
I think it is undeniable that humans have an innate ability to tokenize experience and string the tokens together in syntax. This is supported by studies of people with brain damage who lose the ability to follow specific grammatical constructs.

There are people who inherit an inability to form regular verb tenses. The learn language, but have to learn every verb the way most of us learn irregular verbs.
25 posted on 02/21/2004 10:28:06 AM PST by js1138
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 23 | View Replies]

To: RightWingAtheist
It has been postulated that the visual and linguistic modules are strongly correlated, and possibly even "split" from the same ancestral module. It would explain why we have have both a "spoken" and "gestural" grammar, as well as our abilities at writing and visual representation (drawing and sculpting, etc.), traits which can NOT be explained as being a result of selective evolutionary pressures, as language can.

Gestural communication is used widely as a supplement to verbal communication, although most of the time you don't notice it. As an Italian, I tend to "speak with my hands" a lot.

The ability to communicate with gestures and hand signals would have been valuable to early hunters (to avoid being heard by the hunted) and is in use today in the military (hand and arm signals to silently communicate things like "danger ahead", "take cover", etc)

26 posted on 02/21/2004 10:35:04 AM PST by SauronOfMordor (No anchovies!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 14 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
News/Activism
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794
FreeRepublic.com is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson