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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Deb Roy’s TED Talk: The Blossoming of a Speech Form

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Deb Roy Spaghetti PathsIf you heard our show this week with psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason, you heard a few excerpts from Deb Roy’s speech at TED about “the birth of a word.” The MIT researcher wired all of the rooms of his house with video cameras and microphones so that he could better understand how his son learned language. During three years, he captured 90,000 hours of video, 140,000 hours of audio totaling about 200 terabytes of data.

Deb Roy Word LandscapesThe social ramifications of this are incredible to think about, and the landscape of where we learn language and the events that create conversation that surfaces in our culture are equally mind-blowing. His research might inform not only how we learn but the values and influence of pivotal players in the development of our local and national conversations.

Here’s the transcript to accompany Deb Roy’s twenty-minute presentation:

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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?

wug test - image 1 - this is a wugThe Wug and Wug Test © Jean Berko Gleason 2006. All rights reserved. For individual and family use only. Commercial use prohibited.

wug test - image 2 - this is a gutch
The Wug and Wug Test © Jean Berko Gleason 2006. All rights reserved. For individual and family use only. Commercial use prohibited.

wug test - image 3 - this is a man who knows how to spowThe Wug and Wug Test © Jean Berko Gleason 2006. All rights reserved. For individual and family use only. Commercial use prohibited.

wug test - image 4 - this is a kazh
The Wug and Wug Test © Jean Berko Gleason 2006. All rights reserved. For individual and family use only. Commercial use prohibited.

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Our Twitterscript of Jean Berko Gleason Interview

by Susan Leem, associate producer

this is a wugWug 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:

  1. 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
  2. Dr. Gleason’s famous “Wug” test forever changed our understanding of how humans learn language. 1:28 PM Sep 27th
  3. Professor Gleason settling in at the mic, asking Krista if it’s ok that she “doesn’t do religion.” 1:37 PM Sep 27th
  4. 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
  5. "Charles Darwin wrote notebooks of one of his sons and outlined how he acquired language." -Dr. Berko Gleason1:45 PM Sep 27th
  6. "Literacy, written language is a very late acquisition in terms of human evolution."-Jean Berko Gleason1:50 PM Sep 27th
  7. "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
  8. "There’s a broad spectrum of belief of how kids come to, say, two wugs." -Jean Berko Gleason 1:56 PM Sep 27th
  9. "Your brain is not formed when you’re born, you have to build your brain." -Jean Berko Gleason 1:58 PM Sep 27th
  10. "Language develops by interacting with other people talking to you." -Jean Berko Gleason. 1:59 PM Sep 27th
  11. "Language development is a cooperative event, it happens between children and the people around them." -J. Berko Gleason 2:01 PM Sep 27th
  12. RT @GreggGraham: @Beingtweets But storytelling appears to be a human universal from the beginning. 2:02 PM Sep 27th
  13. "(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
  14. "In the beginning language is there so we can say ‘mommy I want you.’" -Jean Berko Gleason 2:03 PM Sep 27th
  15. "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
  16. "A whole lot of creatures have complex and meaningful lives." J. Berko Gleason on sentience. 2:12 PM Sep 27th
  17. "We have this enormous connection to the living world that is reflected in our language." -Jean Berko Gleason 2:14 PM Sep 27th
  18. "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
  19. "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
  20. @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
  21. "Different languages cut the world into different slices." -Jean Berko Gleason 2:52 PM Sep 27th
  22. "They are not talking, it is called jargon babbling" - Gleason on the viral twins video - http://bit.ly/gaojdQ 2:52 PM Sep 27th
  23. "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
  24. "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
  25. "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
  26. "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

The Original Wug TestIn 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.