Commenting on Our Consciousness through Studying the Deepest Meaning of Human Language

by Krista Tippett, host

There’s a quality I’ve experienced during the years in some people who work lovingly with children across a long life. They nurture and retain an exuberance, a playfulness, in themselves. And they merge that with a delving intellect and spirit. Robert Coles, the psychiatrist who wrote famously about the moral, political, and spiritual lives of children, gave me the phrase “delving spirit” and embodied it:

“It’s our effort on this planet as creatures who have a mind and use language to ask questions and answer them through speculation, through story-telling, to explore the universe and answer those fundamental questions: Where do we come from? What are we? And where, if any place, are we going?”

It interests me, looking back now, to see how Robert Coles stressed language as inextricably bound with spirit. Jean Berko Gleason is, like him, a wisely child-like delver. A professor emerita of psychology, she continues to imprint and expand the field of psycholinguistics that she helped to create — the exploration of how human beings acquire language and what this says about who we are.

She began to make her mark on linguistics decades ago with a test that looks, on the surface, like it’s about basic grammar. She created the wug, a simply drawn mythical creature. This, it turned out, was a savvy tool for demonstrating that young children could apply complex grammatical rules and form new words that no one had ever tried to teach them. Even after 50 years in her field, Jean Berko Gleason remains amazed and delighted at the extremely ordinary human capacity to learn language and work with it. She infects me with that amazement.

She also brings us up to speed on the evolution of this scientific field’s “nature versus nurture” debate. Every discipline, it seems, has one. When I was in college, the MIT linguist Noam Chomsky had taken the intellectual world by storm with his suggestion that we are born with universal, innate language templates that only need to be triggered for humans to speak.

Looking at the “wug test,” you might suspect that it tells some of the same story — of an innate skill that is biologically, not socially, rooted. But as Jean Berko Gleason has grown in her field and watched it grow with her, she has become increasingly fascinated by what we are learning about the intense interaction that draws forth, inspires, and hones that biologically-rooted capacity in all of us as children.

Moreover, Jean Berko Gleason suspects, there is something instructive in the adult human’s compulsion to speak with children, to engage them in language. In ways we’ve barely begun to scrutinize and study, she says, we are unfolding with children as we help them unfold language. The technologies we now have to study the brain are showing us remarkable things — like the physical markers of babies born in bilingual households with bilingual brains. But these technologies, Jean Berko Gleason insists, will never replace our need to observe the miraculous results of mothers talking to their babies.

While we were producing this week’s show “Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life,” a number of us tested this theory on our kids, with varying results. Putting a microphone in front of a five year old, or a thirteen year old, is not the straightest route to natural interaction. But I was amazed, for example, when my teenager, after he’d stopped being reluctant and sarcastic, began to reflect in quite a sophisticated way on the word “human” as “plural” — as pegging us not just as individuals but as part of something, as part of humanity. Which means, he says, that we also “have to do our part.”

This is a fascinating echo of a big idea Jean Berko Gleason leaves me with. In recent years, she’s delved into the fact that children in every language and culture studied by linguists have huge animal vocabularies. She’s puzzling, these days, over what that says about us as human beings. Certainly, we are drawn to life, to living beings. And more and more, we are aware that these beings think and may be conscious. We can’t fathom that, because they can’t tell us about it. But we are given a vast gift in our ordinary, inborn skill of language. Alone among the creatures, as Jean Berko Gleason puts it, we are able to reflect, to be conscious of ourselves, and to comment on that.

I’m grateful that she is out there studying the deepest meaning of human language, and I now appreciate it in a new way in my ordinary, day-to-day life.

Infographic courtesy of John Pasden/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0.

john pasden

An interview with Jean Berko Gleason

by Barbora Skarabela

Jean Berko Gleason

Jean Berko Gleason is Professor Emerita in the Department of Psychology at Boston University. Jean’s career has been impressively productive and diverse: she has published on child language development focusing on socialization and the role of input, the interaction between language and cognitive development, language loss and maintenance and related second language issues, as well as narrative strategies of people suffering from aphasia. Since her last interview in the IASCL bulletin in May 2000, many things have changed. She has now retired, although she remains active in her research. Her article with Richard Ely on apologies in young children’s discourse will appear in the next volume of the Journal of Child Language. Sadly, two of her close colleagues and collaborators died — Zita Réger with whom Jean closely collaborated on socialization and child-directed speech in the Gypsy community in Hungary and Harold Goodglass whom she worked with on language breakdown in patients suffering from aphasia. I’ve asked Jean to reflect on her past years in academia, on her colleagues, the current state of the field and its future.

Barbora Skarabela: Jean, you are now retired, but you are as you have always been — very active. How do you spend time at this stage? What has changed?

Jean Berko Gleason: The main change in my life is that I no longer have to get to the university on a regular basis to teach classes in developmental psychology and language development. I’m glad not to have to grade exams and read undergraduate papers, but I am busy working on research, getting ready for the 7th edition of our textbook, writing articles, and all that. I’ve always loved technology—fast cars, computers, gadgets of all sorts, and I’ve now had time to get into digital photography. Freedom from the course schedule made it possible for me and my husband to sail along the Mediterranean coast of Turkey in March and see the total eclipse of the sun, and I’ve had more time to spend at our country house on a lake in Maine, where we have been observing a pair of loons and their newly hatched chicks. So there’s more time for non-academic pursuits, but I’m not spending a lot of time in the rocking chair the university gave me when I retired.

Your close colleague, Zita Réger, has recently passed away. How would you describe your collaboration? How would you describe Zita? What sparked your original interest in the work on child-directed speech in Romani?

Luck and coincidence are part of this story… I made the first of many trips to Hungary in 1981 on an exchange program that had just been set up between the American Council of Learned Societies and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. My trip came about as a result of a conversation I had in Washington with G. Richard Tucker, who was president of the Center for Applied Linguistics. He told me that the Hungarians were hoping the exchange would bring an American linguist who could collaborate with a member of their Linguistics Institute who was investigating language development in Gypsy kids. This person was Zita Réger. Oddly enough, I had written my undergraduate honours thesis at Radcliffe (in history and literature) on Gypsies. In addition, both of my parents were born in Transylvania, so I had multiple reasons to be interested in going to Hungary. After I told Dick Tucker all this he set the exchange in motion.

Hungary was behind the Iron Curtain in 1981, and very isolated, but Zita and the other members of the Institute were intensely intellectual individuals, amazingly current in their knowledge. Zita was very warm and really loved the families she studied—the children called her ‘Zita Néni’, Aunt Zita. She was also practically alone in her work, which countered the prevailing view in Hungary that Gypsy children suffered from cognitive and linguistic deficits and that Gypsy mothers didn’t even speak to their children. I had already done a lot of research on child directed speech in English, so I suggested we collect some Romani CDS data. We had a delightful time visiting the homes of Gypsies in little towns in eastern Hungary, and we were able to document a specialized CDS register in Romani, as well as complex, creative language from the children. Zita’s work is still helping to bring about a change in how the Romani culture is understood in Hungary, and I’m grateful that I had the chance to collaborate with her. I spoke at the memorial symposium in her honour in Budapest in 2002, and just recently gave a paper on her intellectual legacy at the annual meeting of the Gypsy Lore Society.

You have written on many topics, including work conducted in collaboration with Harold Goodglass on language breakdown in aphasic patients. Do you find this work complementary to the research on child language development? If so, in what sense?

Yes, I think that looking at language loss helps us to understand language acquisition. In the past, many scholars thought that these two processes were mirror images of one another, but we know that that isn’t the case—for instance a severely aphasic adult patient who can only produce one-word utterances is not likely saying “Mommy” and “kitty”, and a patient with agrammatism may actually be better at producing the syllabic –iz form of the plural than the earlier-acquired –z or –s endings. But the very fact that agrammatism exists, that a patient can lose the ability to produce grammatical affixes while preserving the lexical forms, provides evidence that the linguistic units we identify have a psychological reality. I also think that linguistic theory has to be able to account for all of the varieties of language we encounter, including aphasic language. Aphasia gives us a lot to think about in our efforts to explain how language is comprehended, stored, accessed, retrieved, and produced. Harold Goodglass was a seminal thinker in linguistic aphasiology. He was a wonderful colleague who really got us thinking about what goes on in the process of naming. We published our first paper together in 1960, on agrammatism and English inflectional morphology, and we continued to have weekly research meetings, ultimately around his dining room table, until his death in 2002.

Your research has included many different areas relating to language and cognitive development. Your range of interests is truly eclectic. In that sense, it is a bit surprising not to find articles on atypical language development. What is your view on the study of atypical language development? To what extent and in what sense do you find it important for the study of typical language development?

I think I just answered most of this question in my comments about aphasia. I do think that it is important to study atypical language development, and that we need to understand a lot more about aspects of language that are not traditionally classed as ‘linguistic’ in doing this—the role of affect, for instance, in children’s language acquisition, their attachment to other people and their interest in what others might be saying, as well as cognitive capacities like working memory. Of course I think it is also important to study atypical language development so that we can find better ways to help children.

Your early work on the acquisition of inflectional morphology is interpreted as evidence for children’s ability to generalize linguistic constructions and to apply rules. By some, this has been used as evidence for a subtle language-specific mechanism driving children’s acquisition. For others, the results are compatible with the workings of more general cognitive processes associated with children’s ability to recognize patterns and their sensitivity to input. Where do you stand?

In my original paper in 1958 I talked about children knowing the ‘rules’ for how to make plurals, past tenses, and so on. At that time, we were not thinking about a controversy between ‘rules’ folks and ‘analogies’ proponents and I’m not sure that we have good evidence either way now. In other words, we can describe what children do, but we are at odds with one another in trying to explain how they do it. Are children making new plurals analogically, based on similar words they already know, or are they operating at a higher level of abstraction? And is there a separate language-making faculty that underlies these rules or analogies?

I am inclined toward a parsimonious view that sees linguistic behaviour as similar to other behaviour that relies in part on a general cognitive capacity to recognize patterns in input and to generalize. That doesn’t mean that a part of our brain isn’t, at some point, dedicated to language: Babies build their brains, strengthening some connections and pruning others out, based on their experience. The fact that babies can learn to talk and my cat Wolfie can’t means that experience isn’t everything—humans have some genetic capacity to acquire language that cats do not. This is also true of playing the piano and dancing the csardas. But when people talk about language ‘mechanisms’ or ‘hard wiring’ I think we need to remember that these are metaphors, and the human brain may not function like the machines they are based on.

Let’s stay in the late 50’s and early 60’s – you were part of the Harvard-MIT community. Can you describe the atmosphere of that time and place? The results of your experiment were excitedly welcomed by linguists like Chomsky and Lenneberg. Did you ever discuss your work and what it might mean with them?

I worked closely with Roger Brown at Harvard and MIT during that period, first as a graduate student getting a joint PhD in linguistics and social psychology (Roger was a social psychologist), and then at MIT as a postdoc with Roger. It was, of course, the beginning of the cognitive revolution and there certainly was excitement in the air. People were talking about thinking. The group around Roger was a brilliant, funny, creative bunch, and many are now very distinguished scholars. But most of them came after I did, since I was his first doctoral student. Even Eric Lenneberg, who was older than I was, got his degree later. I don’t recall speaking with either Noam Chomsky or Eric Lenneberg about my experiment. The first person I remember who was really excited about it was Uriel Weinreich, the editor of the journal Word, whom I met at an aphasia seminar at the Boston VA Hospital in the summer of 1958. He took a copy of the study from me and published it almost immediately, exactly as I had written it. It seems pretty primitive when I think about it now, but my paper was typed on a typewriter, with carbon copies, and I had to draw my own wugs. Luckily, I have a wug-making capacity.

Since the early 80’s your research has shifted from children’s early ‘creativity’ as sign of abstract grammar to the role and importance of socialization in child language development. What motivated the shift?

The shift in my interests actually began in the 1970s with a linguistic question: I wanted to know when children first acquired various registers, for instance when they began to use ‘baby talk’ to talk to babies. So I began to visit people’s homes to record children speaking to a variety of people. While doing this, I was quite amazed to see how much parents seemed to tailor their language to children. I reported these initial observations at the LSA summer meeting in 1972 in a paper called ‘Code switching in children’s language’. At that LSA meeting Charles Ferguson told me that there was someone in the Netherlands I had to meet because she was also studying parental speech, and her name was Catherine Snow. There also seemed to be differences between mothers and fathers in their CDS. This was irresistible. I gave a paper at the Georgetown Roundtable in 1975 called ‘Fathers and other strangers: Men’s speech to young children’. In subsequent research we found that parents were using language to socialize their children, not just in the use of language (“Say ‘thank you’”), but in other respects as well, some obvious (like “Don’t kick the kitty”) and some subtle, like the use of more diminutives to girls than to boys. So my interests turned to language and socialization, which led to research on routines, the lexicon, politeness, gender differences, diminutives, prohibitives, apologies, which my many colleagues and I found totally fascinating.

How has your view of child language development changed since your early work in the late 50’s? What do you think are the directions this field will take in the future? What do you think about the current trend to look for answers to how language works in the brain?

In my early work I was interested in psycholinguistic questions related to how children come to have an internalized representation of language, and I saw them as solving an intellectual puzzle in acquiring language. I now see language acquisition as a much broader and interactive phenomenon, and I’m interested not just in the kids, but in speech to children as part of the interactive system. And I’m also interested in the role of language in children’s psychological development, the acquisition of their gender roles, cognitive style, and ways of dealing with the world. As for the future of the field, I think language development will be covered at different levels in several disciplines. There is very exciting brain research going on right now—for instance the discovery of mirror neurons provides a new way of interpreting early imitative behaviour. Ultimately, we will understand how the brain works, and aspects of language will be included as a part of developmental neuropsychology. But that is just one level of investigation, and I am sure we will still need to have experimental and observational research on actual children.