Sunday, May 26, 2013

Radiolab on Language and the Brain

Radiolab is always worth listening to (I'm still thinking about the story on baboons), but the recent one about language acquisition and how the brain and memory work was amazing from beginning to end. (Full transcript here.) I've long thought that children don't have clear memories of their early years because they haven't fully developed language yet, but I've never been sure if that's right. The show makes me think that it probably is.

The episode jumped from one thing to another and back again, but it told me about:

  • A 27-year-old deaf man who had been raised without language. He thought people moved their mouths for no reason until a sign language teacher finally broke through to him that humans could communicate. His reaction to learning that symbols exist was emotional, but I kept wondering how his memories of his paralanguage days were affected. This was finally answered in the later part of the show. (More in Susan Schaller's book A Man without Words.)
  • The way a stroke victim -- who is also a neuroanatomist -- recalls quite clearly what it was like to have no language… and she liked it, mostly because it was so stress-free.
  • Nicaraguan deaf children, newly grouped mid-20th century in a school for the deaf without an established sign language system, created their own. Over the years it grew more complex. When shown a cartoon, alumni who had learned the earlier, less vocabulary-rich system could only describe the actions shown in the cartoon, not the motivations of the characters, while younger alums and current students could. (The same is true of children younger than 5, generally.) As the older alums were exposed to the younger alums at a social club, the older alums gained the vocabulary and also the ability to decode the narratives.
  • And that rats -- which understand both color and the concept of right and left -- can't combine the two concepts, such as "to the left of the blue wall" in a maze. Neither can children until the age of 6 when spatial language develops. And even we human adults can be made to lose that same ability when experimenters keep our language faculties focused on verbal busy work.
  • There's even a bit about Shakespeare and all of the words and phrases he added to the English language.
I leave you with a quote from Harvard researcher Elizabeth Spelke:
Everybody has always talked about how language is this incredible tool for communication that allows us to exchange information with other people so much more richly and affectively than other animals can. But language also seems to me to serve as a mechanism of communication between different systems within a single mind.


Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Fascinating. I will listen to this later in the weekend. We were told six years ago that Russian scholars had found that children could learn to recognize the alphabet before they could speak. So we started playing "find the A" with Augie at about three months (we had a high chair tray with the alphabet on it). He became a superior reader and user of language. With his little sister, the game got diluted because meal times were more chaotic (they are only 15 months apart). She doesn't have the same love of reading, tho she's a great user of language.

Ms Sparrow said...

Amazing information. Thanks for passing it on!

charles palson said...

The show was about spoken, not printed, language. I hope in the future they add another part that is rarely discussed: the tones of voice and the complex language of the body e.g. moves of head and limbs, movement of facial and eyes. It is this that turns it in a language of cooperation because it expresses the emotions and attitude that offer a window into the mind and enable smoother cooperation. That is, it is the stuff of the theory of mind that distinguishes (so far!) humans from other animals.