Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Gift of Language

One of the benefits of sticking around college (and specifically sitting in on a colleague's class) even though I'm not teaching this semester, is that I still get to have engaging conversations with bright students. These conversations truly are gifts. Oh man, it also reminds me of what I miss out on by not teaching. Well, I'll be back into it soon enough! That's what I remind myself in moments of doubt.

This morning's conversation evolved from a simple comment at the end of class about how the video shown in another class of Washoe, a sign language trained chimp, was not as impressive as the one I showed in class last year. Here I had to negotiate the murky territory of being this student's prof last year, sitting in a class as a 'student' with him, and hearing comments about my colleague and how he should have used some other (better) video.

First, I asked the student to defend his statement that the video I had shown was in fact more impressive. I simply responded, "Oh yeah? What part?" To which he gave a typical student response, "Oh uh, mmmm, the whole thing." He convinvingly displayed his enthusiasm for the video nonverbally.

We then proceeded to have a wonderful conversation that brought up some core issues in the evolution of thought on language evolution. I was even able to impart a bit of information that he found utterly fascinating. It was all so very rewarding, and just what I needed. I'm finally beginning to understand what Henry Gleitman meant when he told me "Research is your bread; Teaching is the cake."

I shared with this student that for me, what excited me the most was the scene where Sue (Savage-Rumbaugh) cooks alongside Kanzi in a kitchen. He follows her spoken directions to rinse off a knife, turn on the burner, and other actions involved in preparing a meal with such seemlessness that it appears he must for certain understand language. I added - "BUT my scientific mind remians critical off this. They could have gone through these motions so many times and is so well rehearsed that all Sue does is add labels to his actions."

I don't really believe this, because I have seen the results of many double blind tests that show definitively that Kanzi understands spoken language, can produce language with lexigrams, and shows evidence of understanding syntax. He can tell the difference between "Pour the water into the Coke" and "Pour the Coke into the water" for example. But I wnated the student to think critically about the possibility that Kanzi has been conditioned to do what he does. Incidentally, the topic for the intro psych class was classical conditioning so we had a perfect prime for our discussion.

"Couldn't we say then that human language is learned conditioned associations?" He asked.

"Oh yes, indeed! You've just hit on one of the great debates of psychology," I said. "B.F. Skinner proposed that very idea in his book Verbal Behavior."

So then is it all learning? he ponders aloud. "Well that is the age-old debate," I add.

At this point we transitioned into a conversation about how one system of communication (human language, chimp gestures, dog signals, squirrels squeaks, etc) is not inherently superior to another and that really they all exist because they solved some problem or conferred advantages. I asked him to consider what language does for us that chimps miss out on - the ability to share information, talk about what's not present, and plan ahead. This gives us a tremendous advantage and may explain why humans took the evolutionary trajectory they did rather than go the direction chimps did.

Here the student asked a terrific question: "But why did we develop language and not chimps when it's so beneficial?" He adds, "And why does Kanzi have what he has; what does that say about bonobos?"

So I told him that Steven Pinker writes about this and his theory of language evolution in his book The Language Instinct. Pinker proposes that Language is the product of a freak genetic mutational accident. I even called it a gift.

At this point my student, who is now trying to wrap his head around the idea, asks or comments on something that prompts me to say:

"Ah! But yes there is - the FOXP2 gene."

I told him about how deficiencies in this area of genetic code are associated with deficiencies in language that mimic Broca's aphasia, a condition remarkable for the utter lack of patients' ability to produce syntactically correct sentences. They produce pure gibberish.

"Woah! Really?" he exclaims. "So we really are biochemical machines." He must have been picturing Descartes. "I already was already heading there but now I'm onboard" (or something like that) he mutters as he walks off in direction of science building...

Students like him make my day.

If you'd like to read some of my other thoughts on language, click here.


Angela Breidenbach said...

This is a great example of caught rather than taught. Through your own conversation you convey enthusiasm for your science. I think you are more correct that language is a gift.

Cathy Nichols Art said...

Your work is so fascinating. As a mom to a 9 month baby, I find your work on language and primate behavior very relevant!

Of course, I love your monkey avatar, too.