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
A Linguistic Resurrection for Reconnecting with Compassion: Krista Tippett’s TEDTalk
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Released a week earlier than planned, we couldn’t post it until now. At the time, we were in suburban Detroit (go WDET!) setting up for Krista’s interview with Sylvia Boorstein (looking like she’ll be our Mother’s Day show, yay!).
The Twitter chatter has been incredible, and it’s great to see how people respond to these ideas. Please take a few minutes to watch, share it with your friends, and weigh in with your response. We’d love to know what you’re thinking.
Poetry Is a Conveyor of Truths
by Krista Tippett, host
A man at a coffeehouse in downtown Long Beach reads aloud to himself.
(photo: John Williams/Flickr)
When I listened to our Rumi show back in December, I was struck with new force by Rumi’s notion of “the value of perplexity.” Perplexity is a great word I’d like to use more often. It’s something more nuanced than confusion, more substantive than anxiety. It describes the way many of us feel at this moment in time in the life of the world, I think, and also on a more intimate level at this time of year.
We’re making sense of what’s been, reckoning with that, and also feeling perplexed (which is not the same as hopeless) as we look forward. I was tired at the end of last year and I’m aware of that in many around me too. And the cold and snow in the place I inhabit encourage an animal urge to get under the covers and close one’s eyes.
My interview with Elizabeth Alexander (audio above, mp3) encourages this slowing down and peering inside, as well as seriousness and playfulness with words, and a different kind of reflection than all the popular “end of year” analyses and lists. I’ve become more and more aware, in my years of doing this program, of poetry as a conveyor of truths that cannot be captured in mere fact. Poetry, Elizabeth Alexander also reminds us, is one of the great ways we have to tell our stories, the stories of life. It is a carrier of questions to sit with. There is this question, for example, that ends her poem titled "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe": “Are we not of interest to each other?”
A question like this could be as powerful a tool as any we possess for reorienting our approach to each other in our private and public spaces. So was the question she invoked in a political moment at the presidential inauguration in 2009: “What if the mightiest word is love?”
As Elizabeth Alexander and I frankly discuss, these have been hard months since that historic and exhilarating day on the Washington Mall. But this, for her, makes that question more pointed, more necessary — not less so. During one exchange, I wonder if a discussion about poetry might be a luxury when the crises of our time for many are about basic matters of safety and survival — a job to go to, food to eat, medicine to buy, a roof over one’s head. She comes back at my question with a poem Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in a crucible of poverty and insecurity: “(C)ould a dream sent up through onion fumes/And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall/Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms?”
I have the feeling that we need poetry but sometimes without even knowing it. I’ve noticed how distinctively magnetic it is for us and our listeners when we draw out a Joanna Macy, or hear Wendell Berry, or now sit with Elizabeth Alexander. Poetic language is magnetic and humanizing in a class of its own. But I’m aware too that poetry also demands a quality of attention and vulnerability that other forms of language don’t, which may be why we don’t reach for it as often as we might.
I’ve been reaching for it lately. And I’d like to share a few of the poems that have spoken to me at this turn of year.
To begin, two poems by Elizabeth Alexander. The first I asked her to read is actually the end of a long poem called "Neonatology," about the birth of her oldest son. She paired it with a second, "Autumn Passage," which is about the death of her mother-in-law. This loss unfolded in that same period as she was becoming a mother. “Autumn Passage” is on my mind today, as I have news of the impending death of the mother of one of my dearest friends. (The full poems and her readings can be heard by clicking the links above.)
I’ve also been pondering Rainier Maria Rilke’s "Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower," which Joanna Macy translated and read for us back in September. And, finally, a classic, Mary Oliver’s "Wild Geese." This is poetry, as my beloved producer Kate Moos (a poet herself) has pointed out, that has saved lives.
And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to pick up a copy of Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. This book of poems collects the work of this major American poet, and brings us new poems as well. From the seminal work of The Venus Hottentot through "Praise Song for the Day," her poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander celebrates the deep moments poetry can illumine.
Found in Translation
Susan Carpenter Sims, guest contributor
I’m a research junkie and a word nerd. When I was in graduate school, I spent a year researching one of the earliest Old English poems, "The Dream of the Rood." The project began as a lexical analysis for a linguistics class, and what I discovered was that many words had multiple senses — and the available translations didn’t emphasize this. I ended up doing my own translation of all 256 lines. It was immensely rewarding to unfold levels and layers of meaning this way.
I then began studying the Bible with a concordance and would spend whole afternoons looking up every word in one verse. I felt like I was digging up ancient treasure. Word archaeology. I began to see an analogy between words and computer icons. The way you can click on something and it opens up a whole world you couldn’t have imagined before you clicked.
I’ve also read a couple of books by Neil Douglas-Klotz in which he translates various words of Jesus into the Aramaic that Jesus actually spoke, and from there into English. The result is quite poetic and illuminated. For instance, here’s an excerpt from his translation of the Lord’s Prayer:
Grant us what we need each day in bread and insight:
Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,
As we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.
The other day I was doing evening prayer with the radiant little book, Celtic Benedictions, by J. Philip Newell. One of the verses was: ”I commune with my heart in the night, I meditate and search my spirit” (Psalm 77:6). In my New Revised Standard Version Bible, there was an alternate translation for “I commune,” which I read as “My music spirit searches.” I found this odd but inspiring. It took me a minute to realize that because of how the notes were laid out, I was reading it wrong. The alternate translation for “I commune” was simply “My music,” and for “search my spirit,” it was “my spirit searches.” So the verse would then read, “My music is with my heart in the night; I meditate and my spirit searches.” The New International Version translates this verse as “I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired.”
Maybe all of this doesn’t excite you like it does me. I realize it’s this very sort of thing that confirms some folks’ rejection of the Bible, but, for me, it emphasizes poetic truth as what’s valuable over hard fact. There’s grace and mystery in it, not fixed formulaic answers.
Much has been made of what gets lost in translation, but I’m here to say that a lot can be found. When I research and explore this way I feel like I’m peering into a divine kaleidoscope. My music spirit searches, and finds communion in and with the words.
The image above of “The Dream of the Rood” is scanned from the only surviving manuscript, known as the Vercelli Book, from the medieval period.
(credit: image and text courtesy of the University of Oxford)
Susan Carpenter Sims is a writer and collage-maker living in Taos, New Mexico. She writes a weekly column for The Taos News and blogs about her love of a historic local church at The Whole Blooming World.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Editor’s note: Update (2010.07.14) A resourceful reader, Allison Boyd, helped us find her!
The following entry was submitted by a guest contributor without a name or an email address. Rather than letting this lovely post go unread, we published it with the hopes that the author will recognize her or his fine work and contact us so we can give proper credit and adulation!
The Elusive Footage of Elephants Mourning
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
This week’s guest, Katy Payne, was one of the scientists interviewed in a recent 60 Minutes feature about the ongoing study of elephant behavior in the Dzanga forest clearing in the Central African Republic. This is worth watching because it contains beautiful and moving footage of elephant interaction, including how elephants behave after the death of a young calf in 2000. I believe, though have yet to confirm, that this is the footage Katy Payne describes in our program:
"…We were keeping a video record. It was very painful and hard for us to do so, but we did this for the rest of the day and all the next day. And during that time, more than 100 elephants, unrelated to the calf, walked past the place where the little corpse lay on the ground. Every single one of them did something that showed alarm, concern, or somehow showed they were aware of something novel that they were approaching. Some of them took a detour around. About a quarter of them tried to lift the body up with their tusks and their trunks, sometimes trying over and over again. One adolescent male attempted to lift up this little corpse 57 times, and walked away from it and came back five different times."
The feature focuses primarily on efforts to create an “elephant dictionary” from studying vocalizations, including infrasonic sounds. Katy Payne is as warm and passionate as she was with us, giving some impressive imitations of elephant vocalizations herself.
Interfaith, Interreligious, Pluralism, Dialogue, Etc.
Mitch Hanley, senior producer
We often struggle with crafting interesting or catchy titles for each new program. Sometimes we latch on to something one of our guests said in the interview, as was the case with our recent program, which may win the dubious honor of having the longest title: Curiosity Over Assumptions, Interreligiosity Meets a New Generation.
But, please do know that it was not without much debate and extensive brainstorming among our entire staff to try to arrive at a title for the work of Aziza Hasan and Malka Haya Fenyvesi. With humility, I share some of the runners-up:
- Reimagining Interfaith (blah)
- Jewish-Muslim Relationship: The Next Generation (starring Patrick Stewart!)
- Us & Them - Engaging the Other in Jewish/Muslim Conversation (blah)
- The Next Generation of Interreligious (still a bit Trekky)
The struggle had to do with our attempts to avoid the words “interfaith,” “dialogue,” and “pluralism,” which we felt do not sufficiently carry the meaning and real importance of the work that many are doing around the world. We also didn’t want to invoke images of intergalactic pluralism (still a far off dream, I’m afraid).
Krista even brought up the shortcomings of these terms in the interview. Here is an excerpt from the transcript:
Ms. Tippett: I feel that the word “interfaith” or the adjective “interfaith,” even like the word “pluralism,” these words themselves are kind of safe and benign and maybe even boring. When, in fact, when people really have their hands and lives dug into this stuff, as you do, it’s anything but. I mean, it’s very dramatic. It’s galvanizing. It’s changing human life. Do you think about that, that problem of the words themselves getting in the way of communicating to the larger society, what the power of this is?
Ms. Hasan: Absolutely, and I’m glad you brought that up because, when we first started the program, that’s how I would describe it. I would say, you know, this is an interfaith dialog group, and it just wasn’t deep enough. I mean like I’ve been there, done that. I don’t need to do hugs and hummus. If anything, I want to be part of something that’s real, and so to be able to finally like understand the complexity beneath the surface and the importance of having honest conversations that deal with issues like identity and diversity of opinion and gender and so many other things.
Ms. Fenyvesi: I also think a lot about what one of our Fellows who’s actually a Rabbinical student right now said to me. He said, “I really feel like NewGround is about what it means to be Muslim and Jewish in America today.” So that’s not as short as pluralism or interfaith, but I think there’s something about it that really covers what we do.
So what do you think? What words really capture the importance and essence of this work? Or do the existing defaults — e.g. interfaith, pluralism, dialogue — work just fine?
Bouncing Off Language and Meaning
Marc Sanchez, associate producer
She teaches linguistics and Yiddish at the University of Maryland and writes, “I just finished writing an essay about how it felt when I met some Zapotec speakers in Oaxaca, how their experiences about their children being ashamed of their own language related to how many immigrants felt about Yiddish.” This video features Professor Isaacs reading her essay as part of the Marian M. Jenkins Memorial Speaker Series at the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland.