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.
Sunday Morning Exercise: Take “The Wug Test”
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Jean Berko Gleason is the mother of the “wug test” whose findings rocked the world of linguistics when they were first published in 1958. The test demonstrated that children as young as three or four can internalize complex grammatical codes no one has necessarily ever tried to teach them — like forming plurals — and apply these rules broadly, even to made-up words (like the adorable “wug” featured below) they’ve never heard before.
Below you’ll find the 27 delightful hand-drawn pictures that comprise the original wug test. Try them out with the kids in your life — or even by yourself. And tell us what they said that surprised you. What are they modeling or constructing on their own?
Our Twitterscript of Jean Berko Gleason Interview
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Wug graffitti on the street. (photo: Adam Albright/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
This week we interviewed Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist who is now a professor emerita at Boston University, about how we learn and use the most valuable of skills: human language. She’s best known for her wug test experiment, revealing that children develop general systems to learn language.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets and this Thursday, October 6th, look for the produced show via our podcast our on your local public radio station:
- For the next 90 minutes we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s interview with psycholinguistics superstar Jean Berko Gleason. Join us! 1:27 PM Sep 27th
- Dr. Gleason’s famous “Wug” test forever changed our understanding of how humans learn language. 1:28 PM Sep 27th
- Professor Gleason settling in at the mic, asking Krista if it’s ok that she “doesn’t do religion.” 1:37 PM Sep 27th
- Dr. Gleason says her early experience translating her older brother’s speech (he had cerebral palsy) sparked her love for linguistics. 1:44 PM Sep 27th
- "Charles Darwin wrote notebooks of one of his sons and outlined how he acquired language." -Dr. Berko Gleason1:45 PM Sep 27th
- "Literacy, written language is a very late acquisition in terms of human evolution."-Jean Berko Gleason1:50 PM Sep 27th
- "It isn’t that kids learn language in bits and pieces, the children abstract the rules of the language in the same order." -Dr. Berko Gleason 1:55 PM Sep 27th
- "There’s a broad spectrum of belief of how kids come to, say, two wugs." -Jean Berko Gleason 1:56 PM Sep 27th
- "Your brain is not formed when you’re born, you have to build your brain." -Jean Berko Gleason 1:58 PM Sep 27th
- "Language develops by interacting with other people talking to you." -Jean Berko Gleason. 1:59 PM Sep 27th
- "Language development is a cooperative event, it happens between children and the people around them." -J. Berko Gleason 2:01 PM Sep 27th
- RT @GreggGraham: @Beingtweets But storytelling appears to be a human universal from the beginning. 2:02 PM Sep 27th
- "(to learn language) You need not just the cognitive stuff, but emotional underpinnings, you have to care about other people." -J.B. Gleason 2:02 PM Sep 27th
- "In the beginning language is there so we can say ‘mommy I want you.’" -Jean Berko Gleason 2:03 PM Sep 27th
- "Kids will use their own system at the stage that they are, they’re not (learning merely by) imitating you." -Jean Berko Gleason. 2:08 PM Sep 27th
- "A whole lot of creatures have complex and meaningful lives." J. Berko Gleason on sentience. 2:12 PM Sep 27th
- "We have this enormous connection to the living world that is reflected in our language." -Jean Berko Gleason 2:14 PM Sep 27th
- "Of the top 30 words that parents are calling kids’ attention to (‘look at the…’), 12 are animals." -Jean Berko Gleason. 2:18 PM Sep 27th
- "Undergrads should not just take business classes, but business classes plus Sansrkit. It has an affect on your for all your life." -Gleason 2:25 PM Sep 27th
- @WDET? @FightersDay: shoot I took Chinese Saturday School as a kid. How do I learn Sanskrit - where is a good school near Detroit (my city)? 2:28 PM Sep 27th
- "Different languages cut the world into different slices." -Jean Berko Gleason 2:52 PM Sep 27th
- "They are not talking, it is called jargon babbling" - Gleason on the viral twins video - http://bit.ly/gaojdQ 2:52 PM Sep 27th
- "It’s not just children who carry innate things. We come with a long history of being attached to other living creatures." -Gleason 2:53 PM Sep 27th
- "We’re innately predisposed to pay attention to little children. We’re not just watching babies unfold. We’re unfolding with them." -Gleason 2:55 PM Sep 27th
- "Human beings are able to reflect on their existence…for now that distinguishes us from other creatures." -Jean Berko Gleason 2:57 PM Sep 27th
- "I think people should be brave and take a chance and do what excites them." -Jean Berko Gleason’s advice to young people 2:59 PM Sep 27th
Snug as a Wug in a Rug
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
"We’re talking about pure science that’s as important as outer space or the deep sea. We’re learning how human beings think."
—Jean Berko Gleason
In the world of linguistics, Jean Berko Gleason is a huge rock star. She’s best known as the mother of the groundbreaking “wug test,” which demonstrated how children as young as four can internalize complex language rules (like forming plurals) — and apply these rules broadly, even to nonsense words (like "wug") they’ve never encountered before. You can see how the test works in Nova's ”Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers” segment above.
As Berko Gleason explains in her paper “Language Acquisition and Socialization,” the wug study proved that “children are not simply learning bits and pieces of the adult linguistic system but are constructing generative systems of their own and that this results not from adult instruction but from the children’s inborn grammatical capacity.” This finding was so huge that it forever changed the field of linguistics and even inspired some aspiring linguists to get wug tattoos.
The complexity of our “inborn grammatical capacity” is a distinguishing feature of our humanness. And yet, how this hard-wired capacity evolved in our brains is a scientific riddle that hasn’t been neatly resolved. The great mysteries of the universe don’t just reside in the cosmos, they reside within us.
Music has always been incredibly cathartic for me, whether it’s writing my own stuff or singing other people’s music; it’s very freeing. But it did take me a long while to be able to write again because I was just too far down a deep dark hole to do anything. I had to crawl back up, get some light in and have some objectivity before I could start writing again.
The Canadian singer talks parenting, divorce, depression, and songwriting in her interview with Spinner.
—Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Act of Parenting Is Folding the Towels in a Sweet Way
by Krista Tippett, host
I was struck in that discussion by one story she told, about a man who participated in one of her meditation and Metta or “lovingkindness” retreats; she conducts these for Buddhist practitioners but also for rabbis and clergy and lay people of many traditions. As this man prepared to pack up and go home, he described an unsettling sense of vulnerability, of openness to life which also meant that his defenses were down. He felt blessedly sheltered in the context of that retreat but far too exposed to take his newfound vulnerability out into the world.
This has its corollary in becoming a parent, I think. One’s sense of sovereignty and safety goes into freefall — and stays there. But no one tells you this in advance! As the French theologian Louis Evely beautifully put it:
"(W)hen one becomes a father, or a mother, one suddenly sees oneself as vulnerable, in the most sensitive part of one’s being; one is completely powerless to defend oneself, one is no longer free, one is tied up. To become a father is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart."
So how to live, how to love, how to know what we can do (and what we can’t) to raise children who will participate in the world’s beauty and its pain and be safe inside their skin. This too is a conundrum, a daunting challenge that we rarely name together. But it is always there if we are raising children not merely to be successful (and there’s lots of advice about that), but to be good and grounded and kind.
As you might hear in the audio above, I went into this conversation with Sylvia Boorstein hoping for some practical wisdom about imparting such qualities of character. In the course of our time together, some of it in exchange with an audience of others with children in their lives, we circled back to the simplest and most daunting reality of all: our children are likely, in the end, to act and live as we act and live. Nurturing their inner lives means nurturing our inner lives, for their sake.
I couldn’t have found a better conversation partner on this. Sylvia Boorstein has four grown children and seven grandchildren, and her spiritual practice is blessedly reality-based. Buddhism, of course, is at its core about embracing reality head on, about minimizing suffering in life by first acknowledging that suffering is a fact of life and resolving not to make it worse.
So, as she describes, this spiritual practice has helped her grasp that her lifelong tendency to worry is simply a quality she possesses, no more remarkable than the fact that she is short and has brown hair. Others of us may have a tendency towards anger, or to reach for sensory comfort when life throws its curve balls. The trick for achieving balance and joy in our own lives — a trick made both harder and more important by the presence of children who exhaust as well as delight us — is first to know this about ourselves.
Spiritual parenting, as Sylvia Boorstein describes it, is not about adding work or effort to our overly busy lives. It is about self-knowledge and “wise effort” that helps us live gracefully moment by moment. It is manifest as much in how we fold the laundry as in how we discipline or praise our children. She offers this, for example, as a simple piece of effort that can reorient our attitudes and responses in all kinds of situations. Rather than asking, “Am I pleased?” in any given situation, we can ask instead, “In this moment, am I able to care?”
The Unasked Questions for Sylvia Boorstein
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
"How can I catch my angry self before it catches me!?"
This is one of many anonymous questions posed by the 300 people who came out to hear Krista interview Sylvia Boorstein at a live event in Birmingham, Michigan last month. The theme of their conversation: “Raising Children in Complex Times.” Now in her 70’s, Boorstein is best known as a Buddhist meditation teacher and author. She’s quick to define herself as both a mother and grandmother.
We came away from this event with a big stack of question cards, many of which didn’t get posed because of time. Here’s a sampler:
"Sometimes my husband will say - we need to toughen these kids up; they have to live in a tough world. How do we balance teaching them kindness/gentleness versus being tough."
"What words of comfort can we say to our children (22 yrs) when faced with health issues. (Can be major or minor)."
"In a time of overbearing parenting and institutionalized narcisism [sic], how do we cultivate caring?"
"Spiritual principles for a 6 yr old. My daughter is 6 — she asks many questions about ‘God.’ Other than modeling behavior do you have other suggestions on how to discuss spirituality when my spirituality is so abstract?"
"Growing up in an alcoholic family, and with anxiety as an adult, how does one manage anxiety with parenting?"
Looking at the anonymous cards, each one with its distinctive handwriting, I imagine a person on the other side with a longing for their question to be answered.
Which of these questions speak to you? And what responses would you offer?
Children Help Us Embrace the Mystery
by Krista Tippett, host
The notion of God as father is a metaphor, of course, like much religious language. It is necessary approximation and analogy. When I became a mother myself, I was stunned at how little we have filled this metaphor with meaning from the real experience of parenting. The Heavenly Father of my childhood was implacable, inscrutable, all-powerful. But to become a parent in reality is to enter a state of extreme vulnerability. “To become a father,” the French theologian Louis Evely aptly put it, “is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart.”
Raising a new human being in this world is a monumental spiritual task, yet we so rarely call it that. This does not become easier when, at some point, our offspring become little theologians and philosophers. They begin to ask huge questions about life and the universe — basic questions about how we got here and where God lives and why people die and why people hurt each other and what it means to be good and to be happy. These questions are the building blocks of religion and ethics. We refine them all of our lives, but at heart they remain the same. What changes is our ability to articulate and act on them.
As parents, we want to support this part of our children’s natures. With other mundane aspects of parenting — like how to help them sleep, or how to feed them, or how to teach them to read — we know that we need help. We seek maps, books, and counselors. But when it comes to these personal, existential questions of meaning, we often feel that we should intuitively have the answers. In my own life, and as I’ve spoken with different people across the country these past years, the spirituality of parenting is often a source of anxiety. It provokes a feeling of inadequacy. This is heightened in our age by the fact that so many of us are less connected to specific religious traditions and institutions than the generations that preceded us. And many of us inherit a mix of spiritual practices in our own histories, marriages, and extended families.
As we prepared to create our show titled "The Spirituality of Parenting," we put out a call for the reflections and questions of our listeners and newsletter subscribers. Many, many parents wrote in, as well as grandparents and ministers and teachers. You can hear some of their voices and stories, and see their pictures, on our website. Each contribution has been wonderful to read. The breadth of spiritual searching and the diversity of spiritual moorings among them is startling, reflecting the plurality of the culture we inhabit. And more than a few who are deeply rooted in a particular tradition stressed that even they need guidance on how to teach and model a vocabulary of words and practice for exploring religion and meaning and ethics as they share ordinary life with the children they love.
I don’t believe I could have found a better conversation partner than Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Her ideas have kept me pondering, and I’m delighted to send them out into the world. She encourages us to begin with what we know, and also to let our children lead us on a new journey of questioning and learning. We can seek out maps and books and counselors on this part of their development too, and we should. She also urges parents to explore the place they come from, the communities or traditions in their family and background, even if they have left it behind at another stage in life. Don’t let those who modeled the worst of your faith, she adds, define that faith for you. Understand yourself as an ancestor to the next generation, as part of tradition’s unfolding story.
Most of all, we should attend to our children’s musings about life’s wonders and injustices, their grief at the death of a pet or a loved one, their response to a homeless person encountered on the street. It is all right not to have answers for their large moral and existential questions. Unlike adults, children are not afraid of mystery. But they do need us to help them develop vocabularies and ways of living to keep those questions alive and growing. They need to hear how we think about large questions of meaning, and about what experience has taught us. They need to hear our questions and our stories. Stories are the vocabulary of theology for children. They also crave and will use ritual and routine, and we can form these from daily life and commonplace experiences.
I return to the insight I began with — that children can make the essence of religion come alive. They may ultimately teach us far more than we teach them. “Children open windows for us,” Sandy Sasso says, “or can crawl through windows that we can’t crawl through, and they open part of our life that maybe has been dormant for a long time.” The rest is mystery, and our children will help us embrace that more joyfully too.
(photo: Renata Baião/Flickr)
First Time Flying a Kite
Trent Gilliss, online editor
The footage spliced together in the video above comes directly from the home library of Adele Diamond and her husband, Don. During her interview, she told Krista the following story:
So I think mysteries are just wonderful. It’s very interesting because when I made this book for the Dalai Lama, I put a lot of love and time and effort into it. And my husband said, who came with me to Dharamsala said, ‘If you’re going to give him a present, I want to give him a present too.’ So he wanted to give him a kite because he didn’t think the Dalai Lama got to spend enough time playing. …
And so then he found online that he could get a package of 10 plain undecorated kites very inexpensively. So he asked me if I could find classes of school children to decorate them. So I contacted a colleague, Kim Schonert-Reichl, and she helped me find a class of children with developmental disorders, many of them ADHD, who were either not on medication or on reduced medication because they were doing mindfulness. So they had heard of the Dalai Lama, and they were very excited to be decorating these kites. And there were two children per kite. So on one side, they did self portraits, so it looked like a Picasso because half of the kite is one child’s face and half of the kite is the other child’s face. Anyway, so my husband brings all these to Dharamsala and we get a private audience with His Holiness and we had the wisdom not to bring all the kites with us to the audience because the Dalai Lama said thank you but it was very clear he wasn’t going to fly any kites; he’s was going to put them in a drawer.
So after that we went to visit Matthieu Ricard at Katmandu, where he has a Tibetan monastery. And he has many humanitarian projects in connection with that and one of them are schools for poor children. Any background, doesn’t matter, religious or ethnic. They call it bamboo schools because the buildings are all made out of bamboo. So we went to these bamboo schools and we brought the rest of the kites and we gave it to the children there. They had never flown kites before, and they were so happy to be flying these kites. And Matthieu was so happy to see the children so happy. And we took photos and videos and I brought them back to the class in Vancouver to the children who had been studying mindfulness and I showed them the pictures and they were so happy to see how happy they had made the other children.
And one of them said, ‘You know, we’re on the other side of the world but we’re all connected.’”
As if Diamond’s descriptions of the Dalai Lama, Nepal, bamboo schools, and children painting kites weren’t enticing enough, we wanted to visualize the scene of those children flying kites. What strikes me is an immense amount of joy — the children playing and Adele and Don watching their gift come to life. I hope you enjoy these few minutes of seeing the world through an act of simplicity — flying and entangling a kite in a tree.
SoundSeen: Dramatic Play + the Developing Brain
by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
For this week’s show "Learning, Doing, Being: A New Science of Education," Krista interviewed neuroscientist Adele Diamond, who studies how social dramatic play can build “executive function” (EF) skills in children’s brains. As Diamond explains it, EF is a container term for capacities like inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. These are skills that are lodged in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which Diamond calls “the new kid on the block” because it’s the part of the human brain to develop most recently through evolution. As we grow from babies into young adults, the prefrontal cortex is the last brain area to mature. When we age, it is the first to falter.
While producing this show, we learned that Diamond serves as an advisor for a nearby charter school that incorporates some elements of social dramatic play into its curriculum. We visited the school a few weeks ago and one result is this narrated slideshow pairing Adele Diamond’s explanation of the nuts and bolts of EF with 5th and 6th graders demonstrating some of the principles she describes through improvisational theater games.
If you have the chance, check out Krista’s full interview with Adele Diamond or listen for more of this ambient audio in the produced show. I don’t know what brain area is responsible for creating an audio slideshow but mine certainly got a workout putting this together.
And, a special thanks to the teachers and students at Quest Academy for their participation in this project.