Post written by Jennifer Austin, María Blume & Liliana Sánchez authors of Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World.
Bilingualism, and how it affects language and cognitive development, is a topic of increasing relevance in an interconnected world. In Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World, we examine how the outcomes of bilingualism are shaped by factors at the individual level, such as age of acquisition and the amount and type of input, as well as societal support for the minority language in the form of dual-language education and similar initiatives. By analyzing previous research on the effects of these variables on bilingual speakers’ linguistic representations, as well as their minds and brains, we have attempted to provide a better understanding of some emerging conceptual views of the bilingual speaker. We also discuss how societal maintenance of bilingualism differs within the three multilingual communities which are the focus of this book: Peru, Spain and the United States. The status of Spanish varies between these regions; in Peru and the Spanish Basque Country, Spanish is a high-status, majority language, and in the United States, it is a minority language with varying degrees of prestige. While these three communities are linked by the common thread of bilingualism in Spanish, they provide diverse perspectives on the experience of being bilingual in distinct cultural, political, and socioeconomic contexts.
In the first chapter of the book, we examine how the concept of bilingualism has evolved from early definitions which included the expectation that bilinguals should behave like monolinguals, as in Bloomfield’s definition of bilingualism as the “native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield 1933: 55-56). Increasingly, contemporary theories of bilingualism view differences between bilinguals and monolinguals as expected and normal, rather than deficiencies on the part of the bilingual. In addition, we discuss how heritage speakers challenge previous expectations regarding bilingualism, namely that the first language acquired is always the dominant one (the “mother tongue”), as well as the language that is acquired in a “native-like” fashion.
In the second chapter, we discuss recent research showing that the two languages of a bilingual are highly interconnected at the lexical, syntactic and phonological levels. We also review evidence that the continual interaction between the languages of a bilingual has important repercussions for cognitive development in bilingual children beginning early in infancy. These include enhanced executive function skills stemming from bilinguals’ need to monitor and inhibit one of their languages, as well as enhanced literacy abilities for bilingual children acquiring same-script languages. Bilingualism also produces neuroanatomical changes in multilingual speakers, including enhanced subcortical auditory processing and increased grey matter density in the inferior parietal cortex, an effect that is modulated by language proficiency and age of acquisition. Finally in the second chapter we presented evidence regarding the factors that affect L1 and L2 attrition in bilinguals, including age of second language immersion, availability and type of input, and proficiency levels in each language.
The third chapter examines several theories which have been proposed to account for lexical and syntactic development in bilingual children and adults. While early theoretical accounts assumed that lexical and syntactic development occurred separately, more recent approaches have proposed that their acquisition is interconnected, a theoretical linguistic advance which finds empirical support in the studies of the bilingual lexicon by cognitive psychologists. In this chapter we also present research findings that have allowed the field of bilingualism to move from initial debates on unitary versus binary systems of representation to a more nuanced view of the development of the bilingual lexicon and syntax that involves the interplay of different language subcomponents.
The overall picture that emerges from this book is thatthe cognitive and linguistic effectsof bilingualism illustrate just how complex the representation and processing of language are in the human mind in ways that go beyond accounts based solely on the study of monolinguals.
To find out more about this new book published by Cambridge University Press please click here
Dr. Aneta Pavlenko
Professor of Applied Linguistics
Written by Aneta Pavlenko, Temple University
We are often asked about the relevance of linguistics for the ‘real world’. On June 2, 2014, I got an opportunity to explain this relevance to the judge, the media, and the general public when I testified as an expert witness in the pre-trial hearing of a Kazakh national, Dias Kadyrbayev, friend of the accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnayev. The hearing was not about guilt or innocence. Its purpose was to determine whether Dias understood his Miranda rights – to remain silent, to request a lawyer, and to have a lawyer provided to him for free – and the consequences of waiving them. There were two complications: the FBI interrogation was not recorded, nor could I test Dias’ proficiency directly because by the time his lawyers contacted me, he had spent more than eight months in jail, interacting and reading in English.
Based on my previous experience with a similar case, I requested Dias’ test scores, academic records, and written texts produced by him prior to the interrogation. I also asked him to write a language learning history based on my prompts. Then I used his test scores from 2011 to establish his baseline proficiency (“no lower than”), linguistic patterns in his learning history to establish a ceiling proficiency (“no higher than”), and linguistic patterns in his writings from 2012-2013 to infer his proficiency at the time in terms of the ACTFL proficiency guidelines. My analysis suggested that at the time of the interrogation he had an Intermediate level of English proficiency and was highly unlikely to understand his Miranda rights without linguistic accommodations, such as clarification, translation, or interpretation.
In court, I tried to explain why a Russian speaker who relied on simple sentences, such as “I am feel bad” or “I did them very bad”, may be unable to automatically process sentences, such as “If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish”. The reasons are many: syntactic complexity, low-frequency words, polysemy, differences between Russian and English in sentence structure and temporal marking, unfamiliarity with the privilege against self-incrimination, and the fact that the rights were presented under stress, in a short time span, without linguistic assistance. My task should have been fairly easy, right?
Sorry to say, fellow linguists, it was not a triumphant experience – eyes glazed when I uttered the terms ‘language proficiency’ and ‘predictive validity’ and mouths opened in extended yawns when I listed ‘deep embedding’, ‘double conditionals’, ‘ellipsis’ and ‘polysemy’ as features that make understanding the Miranda rights challenging for non-native speakers of English. Next-day media reports showed that I failed to communicate my points effectively. The failure lies squarely on my shoulders – I should have found better terms and examples – yet it also stems from different assumptions in academia and the ‘real world’ about language and evidence.
Here is the ‘real world’ version. Kadyrbayev studied English for 6 years in Kazakhstan and spent 4 weeks in the UK and 8 weeks in the US, prior to his arrival in the US in 2011. The prosecution argued that this was a record of ‘extensive’ study, sufficient to establish his English-language competence. They also stated that being a student at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth was in and of itself sufficient evidence of Kadyrbayev’s English proficiency.
In academia, years of language study are not a valid predictor of proficiency, due to highly variable instruction quality, and the only evidence that counts are test scores. Kadyrbayev’s 2011 score of 5.5 on IELTS, an international test of English proficiency, indicates, according to the IELTS guide, a low level of proficiency that requires further English study prior to taking any academic courses or even linguistically demanding ESL courses. So how did he get to be a student at UMass?
In fact, Kadyrbayev was not a UMass student – he was enrolled in the program run at UMass by a for-profit corporation Navitas that recruits foreign students who can pay for their courses and promises them that after two years they could transfer into the regular program. In Kadyrbayev’s case, this was not to be because Navitas did not heed his low IELTS scores and instead of offering ESL instruction he badly needed, enrolled him in academic courses, such as math and chemistry, where he struggled to understand what was going on. The mismatch between his level of proficiency and the linguistic demands of his courses led to plagiarism, absenteeism, failed courses, academic probation, and, in February 2013, dismissal from the program. But this does not mean he could not speak English, right?
To make their case, the prosecution emphasized his ability to interact in everyday situations and use colloquial English. These arguments, however, present language as binary, where you either have it or you don’t, and evidence of ‘some’ English suffices as evidence of ‘all’. Researchers, on the other hand, see proficiency in terms of levels and emphasize that speaking skills, or Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) in Jim Cummins’ terms, are acquired earlier than Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), necessary to process the Miranda rights.
In terms of consent forms, in academia, regulations for protection of human subjects require us to write research consent forms in plain English and to translate them for speakers with lower levels of English proficiency. In the criminal justice system, there is no requirement to present the Miranda warnings in any language other than English, and a signature on the Miranda form is sufficient evidence of understanding. For linguists, on the other hand, the signature is evidence of understanding that the form had to be signed, and the only valid evidence of understanding of Miranda rights is their restatement in one’s own words.
I left the courtroom that day asking myself: would an American detained in Kazakhstan consent to go through the proceedings in his non-fluent Russian or Kazakh? And if not, how can our own criminal justice system address its monolingual bias and could it “afford” to do so “if it wished”? In my own view, it can and it should – the policies and best practices suggested by research are neither expensive nor time-consuming. The adoption of ‘plain English’ forms and standardized translations of the Miranda warnings, in combination with the requirement to restate the rights in one’s own words, would go a long way towards addressing the disparity in the system. This also may be the only way to ensure that boring linguists like me do not reappear in court.
If you enjoyed this post, find out more about The Bilingual Mind, here.
How do children develop bilingual competence? Do bilingual children develop language in the same way as monolinguals? Set in the context of findings on language development, Bilingual Language Acquisition examines the acquisition of English and Spanish by two brothers in the first six years of their lives. (The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 1).
Bingual language acquisition
The terms bilingual and bilingualism have received diverse definitions. In this book, bilingual (the person), and bilingualism (the condition or state of affairs) refer to the use of two (or more) languages in everyday life. Two major patterns of language acquisition have been identified in studies of early bilingualism: simultaneous bilingualism and sequential bilingualism, but no agreement exists with respect to the age at which bilingual development would be considered to be sequential. In simultaneous bilingualism, the child acquires two languages at the same time from birth or, as some researchers propose, before 3 years of age. Here, I use the term Bilingual First Language Acquisition (BFLA, or 2L1) to refer to situations where the child’s exposure to two languages begins at birth (cf. De Houwer 2009: Ch. 1). This means that the question of the effect that different ages of first exposure to a language may have on the development of bilingual competence is not relevant in BFLA, but it is in sequential bilingualism. The latter could be differentiated, depending on when acquisition of a second language begins, into: (a) successive bilingualism, when the child’s exposure to a second language starts sometime between the first and third birthdays; and (b) early second language acquisition, a form of early bilingualism that happens when a child has one established language before starting to hear and learn a second language (De Houwer 2009: 4). This book focuses on BFLA – that is, on the acquisition of two languages from birth, Spanish and English in this case. The overall goal is to examine whether bilingualism affects the course of development in each language, and if so, how. course of development in each language, and if so, how.
Download the full excerpt here
The Study of Language has proven itself to be the student and instructor choice for first courses in language and linguistics because of its accessible approach to, what is often, a complicated subject. In every edition, readers have praised the book for being easy to follow, simple to understand, and fun to read, with its quirky anecdotes and examples of languages from around the world. Now in its fifth edition, it is further strengthened by the addition of new student ‘tasks’ (guiding readers to connect theory to real-world scenarios), including examples from even more foreign languages, and updating the text to reflect the most current linguistic theory. We will also be offering an enriched learning experience with our new enhanced eBook (publishing in Autumn), which will include pop-up glossary terms, embedded audio and interactive questioning. All of these features make this the most student-friendly edition of the textbook yet.
Paragraph above by Valerie Appleby, Development Editor, Cambridge University Press
by Hugh Knickerbocker and Jeanette Altarriba
University at Albany, State University of New York
Several models of bilingual memory describe the interplay between lexical and semantic stores of memory in bilingual individuals attempting to comprehend and produce speech. However, while these models have emphasized the pattern of connections between general linguistic and semantic clusters across languages, only a small amount of work has investigated the perception of emotion across languages. Numerous lines of research have showcased emotion effects and have provided insight into the effects of emotion and language on semantic and autobiographical memory.
Multiple studies have investigated the automatic activation of emotion words across first (L1) and second (L2) languages. The findings of these studies are heavily influenced by the pattern of language dominance exhibited by the sample of participants. Procedures such as the Stroop task, where participants report the presentation color of a word rather than the word itself (e.g., the word ‘fear’ presented in the color blue is responded to more slowly, as opposed to the word ‘box’ in the color blue), or priming, where response to a target word is faster when it is preceded by a related prime word (e.g., participants respond faster to ‘depressed’ when primed by ‘sad’) as compared to an unrelated word, have shown similar emotion effects when bilinguals are fluent and regularly use both languages (Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, & Kardes, 1986; Sutton, Altarriba, Gianico, & Basnight-Brown, 2007). However, emotion effects can be limited to one language if bilinguals have a clear dominant language.
Research into the automatic processing of emotional language has led to even more interesting insights into the structure of autobiographical memory in bilingual individuals. Research has utilized skin conductance response (SCR) where changes in the conductivity of the skin are measured as an indication of autonomic nervous system responses. Stressors should result in an autonomic nervous system response that can be detected by monitoring sweat levels on the skin. Increases in sweat increase the conductance across participants’ skin. Bilingual research using SCR measures provides insight into the automatic processing of emotion across L1 and L2. This research has found that late learners of L2 exhibited SCR effects to emotion words (e.g., sadness) in both their L2 and L1, but only exhibited SCR effects for reprimands (e.g., shame on you) when they were presented in their L1. During debriefing interviews, participants reported unique automatic memory retrievals from their youth when presented with reprimands. These memories were typically events where participants were reprimanded as children by a family member or other authority figure. These findings provided strong evidence of the existence of language-specific memories that can best be retrieved through the use of a specific language (Harris, 2004; Harris, Ayçiçeği, & Berko-Gleason, 2003).
Research into conscious retrieval and autobiographical memory has also provided evidence of language-specific memories. Investigations have found that memories tend to be more available for retrieval in the language in which they originally occurred. Bilinguals generally provide memories with a greater level of detail and elaboration when retrieving a memory in the language in which the event occurred. Studies of the autobiographical memory of bilingual immigrants who changed their daily language usage as a result of emigrating have bolstered this view. This research has examined the ‘reminiscence bump’ which is a time period between the approximate ages of 10 and 30 that results in a greater number of autobiographical memories. The reminiscence bump tended to shift to match the time period of emigration. More interesting, the memories of the participants were clearly divided between their two known languages. Memories before immigration (and the reminiscence bump) were stored in participants’ original language. Later memories that were from a post-immigration period were stored and more easily retrievable in the language that participants were forced to switch to as a result of their immigration event (Schrauf, & Rubin, 1998, 2000, 2001).
The processing of emotional speech by bilinguals has already begun to clarify some of the idiosyncrasies of semantic and autobiographical memory retrieval and structure. We now know that emotional stimuli can have the same impact regardless of language, as long as participants have similar levels of fluency and daily usage in all known languages. However, some emotional connections remain unique and highlight features of autobiographical memory.
Fazio, R. H., Sanbonmatsu, D. M., Powell, M. C., & Kardes, F. R. (1986). On the automatic activation of attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 229-238.
Harris, C. L. (2004). Bilingual speakers in the lab: Psychophysiological measures of emotional reactivity. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 25, 223-247.
Harris, C. L., Ayçiçeği, A., & Berko-Gleason, J. B. (2003). Taboo words and reprimands elicit greater autonomic reactivity in a first language than in a second language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 561-579.
Schrauf, R. W., & Rubin, D.C. (1998). Bilingual autobiographical memory in older adult immigrants: A test of cognitive explanations of the reminiscence bump and the linguistic encoding of memories. Journal of Memory and Language, 39, 437-457.
Schrauf, R. W., & Rubin, D.C. (2000). Internal languages of retrieval: The bilingual encoding of memories for the personal past. Memory & Cognition, 28, 616-623.
Schrauf, R. W., & Rubin, D.C. (2001). Effects of voluntary immigration on the distribution of autobiographical memory over the lifespan. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 15, S75-S88.
Sutton, T. M., Altarriba, J., Gianico, J. L., & Basnight-Brown, D. M. (2007). The automatic access of emotion: Emotional Stroop effects in Spanish-English bilingual speakers. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 1077-1090.
Find out more about Memory, Language and Bilingualism here.
written by Aneta Pavlenko, Temple University
One of the linchpins of human information-processing are the frames of expectation we apply to the constant flow of information. These frames allow us to impose meaning on the things we see, hear, or read and to position ourselves with regard to ideas and arguments. In the case of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (SWH), these frames require us to adopt one of the three recognizable positions: for (which may brand us as radicals), against (a marker of a skeptic or a rational thinker), or in-between (a sign of a temperate scholar willing to consider the pros and cons of everything). The adoption of conventional frames of expectation saves us a lot of valuable time – once we know (or think we know) what each position means and where each party stands, we can jump right in the middle of any argument and hammer in our own point of view. I have experienced the power of this conventionality firsthand when I gave an interview about my book, The Bilingual Mind, to François Grosjean at Psychology Today: some readers immediately branded it as defense of the relativist cause (at best) or ‘nonsensical relativism’ (at worst). Yet there is a downside to unquestioning adoption of conventional frames of expectation – it leaves us vulnerable and unprepared for changes in the terms of engagement. The Bilingual Mind is a case in point: I do not argue for or against the SWH because I do not see it as a legitimate scientific phenomenon. The purpose of the book is to show that the SWH ‘as we know it’ is a phantom, if not a fraud, and has little to do with questions that preoccupied Sapir and Whorf.
The manufacturing of consent on the SWH began when Sapir and Whorf passed away and their ideas landed in the hands of others. Driven by the desire to make complex notions, articulated by linguistic anthropologists, fit experimental paradigms in psychology, Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg transformed them into two ‘testable’ hypotheses. These hypotheses – one ‘weak’, one ‘strong’ – appeared in their definitive form in Brown’s (1958) book Words and things:
linguistic relativity holds that where there are differences of language there will also be
differences of thought, that language and thought covary. Determinism goes beyond this
to require that the prior existence of some language pattern is either necessary or sufficient to produce some thought pattern. (p. 260)
Soon the newly-minted SWH took on a life of its own, multiplying and reproducing itself in a myriad of textbooks, articles, lectures, and popular media. Yet ideas don’t travel easily across disciplines and Brown’s and Lenneberg’s reformulations departed from Sapir’s and Whorf’s original arguments in several ways. To begin with, they articulated the hypothesis in monolingual terms (while Sapir and Whorf were interested in the power of multilingual awareness). Secondly, they shifted the inquiry from obligatory grammatical categories, such as tense, to lexical domains, such as color, that had a rather tenuous relationship to linguistic thought (color differentiation was, in fact, discussed by Boas and Whorf as an ability not influenced by language). Third, they shifted from concepts as interpretive categories to cognitive processes, such as perception or memory, that were of little interest to Sapir and Whorf, and proposed to investigate them with artificial stimuli, such as Munsell chips. In doing so, they moved the discussion further and further away from Sapir’s primary interest in ‘social reality’ and Whorf’s central concern with ‘habitual thought’.
When we look back, the attribution of the idea of linguistic determinism to multilingual scholars interested in second language learning and language change makes little sense. Yet the replacement of open-ended questions about linguistic diversity with two ‘testable’ hypotheses had a major advantage – it was easier to argue about and to digest. The transformation was further facilitated by four academic practices that allow us to manage the ever-increasing amount of literature in the ever-decreasing amount of time: (a) simplification of complex arguments (which often results in misinterpretation); (b) reduction of original texts to standard quotes; (c) reliance on other people’s exegeses; and (d) uncritical reproduction of received knowledge. Eventually, the very frequency of its reproduction made the SWH a ‘fact on the ground’.
Today, the received belief in the validity of the terms of engagement articulated by Brown and Lenneberg still reigns unopposed. Yet the focus on ‘non-linguistic cognition’ of ‘monolingual’ speakers in the experimental lab gave rise to a self-defeating line of inquiry that has little ecological validity and little in common with Whorf’s interest in thought insofar as it is linguistic. The purpose of The Bilingual Mind is to consider what is meant by linguistic thought and what non-trivial effects languages have on such thought in monolingual and multilingual speakers. Far be it from me, however, to claim that the book aims to move the inquiry on language and cognition ‘forward’. It does not – if only because I agree with Kuhn ( 2012) that the metaphor of science as ongoing march forward is utterly misleading. My goal is to convince at least a few readers to move ‘away’ from the deeply familiar – yet inherently flawed – terms of engagement articulated for us by Brown and Lenneberg, to ‘backtrack’ towards the questions posited by Sapir and Whorf and to adopt more realistic terms of engagement with the relationship between language(s) and thought that take into consideration language change and the undeniable bi- and multilingualism of the majority of the world’s population.
The Bilingual Mind is due to publish February 2014.
Posted on behalf of Editors William Labov and Dennis Preston
Cambridge University Press is pleased to announce the launch of the new online-only Journal of Linguistic Geography (JLG). The journal’s goal is to open the flow of linguistic analysis using electronic formats (such as scalable maps and figures, searchable data sets, and embedded audio files) in a field that has long been blocked by technical factors. For all new subscribers, a comprehensive User Experience Guide provides an overview of the journal’s interactive capacities. Submissions to the journal are welcome and may be sent to email@example.com. Queries are welcome, too.
The journal is an official publication of the International Conference on Methods in Dialectology. Editors Bill Labov (University of Pennsylvania) and Dennis R. Preston (Oklahoma State University) are supported by Technical Editor Bartłomiej Plichta (University of Minnesota). The full editorial board can be viewed here.
The Journal of Linguistic Geography: From Concept to Creation
The stacks of our libraries are filled with magnificent atlases of linguistic geography. File cabinets throughout the world are filled with papers that have never appeared, faced with the problem of reducing maps to small black-and-white versions that convey only a small part of the information in the original.
There will be no limit on the size of maps submitted to the Journal of Linguistic Geography; they will be viewed in their entirety with the panning and zooming options that are second nature to users of the internet. Color is as fundamental as size in cartography, and in electronic publication, color is no more difficult or expensive than black-and-white.
Even more crucial to analytical reading is the relation between map and text, which in print may require a back-and-forth paging operation that challenges memory and even lead to accepting (or rejecting) the author’s statement without making a point-by-point inspection. In the Journal of Linguistic Geography, maps and figures open in a new window, allowing the reader to make a direct comparison between what is said and what is shown.
A further advantage of the journal’s format is that of sound samples in the electronic page. They will not replace IPA notation, but rather serve to refine and encourage the use of phonetic notation.
Reading the Journal of Linguistic Geography will also show that technical innovations are not confined to modes of display. New developments in mathematical analysis of spatial patterns are represented and may include substantial appendices, since the space limitations of print journals do not apply.
So much for form. But what about content?
To put it simply, linguistic geography is concerned with the spatial differentiation of linguistic forms. Teachers of introductory linguistics find that students are fascinated with the fact there are regions nearby where speakers use ‘X’ to refer to what is (“rightly”) called ‘Y.’ This fascination with the facts of the matter impedes rather than encourages the development of our field as a branch of linguistic science. JLG hopes to mobilize those facts in pursuit of a better understanding of the nature of language structure and language change. Our interest is focused on those connections within language that reflect the impact of a given change on other members of the system. A submission that traces distribution of isolated forms or sounds will receive our full attention when it is woven into the fabric of relations that turn words into language.
We do not disprefer studies of the lexicon, but we encourage authors to display the use of a form against the background of competing and complimentary forms, showing what meanings are found for a given form as well as what forms are found for a given meaning.
Fields of structural relationships are most clearly delineated in phonology, and we would be surprised not to receive submissions dealing with the geography of chain shifts, splits and mergers, but we hope to deal with the geography of the full range of linguistic structures.
We invite studies of the perception of speech as well as production. We are interested in both how linguistic varieties across and within regions are heard and processed and how non-linguists perceive the spatial distribution of varieties, particularly when such studies shed light on the characteristics of language variation and change.
The fact that we are named the Journal of Linguistic Geography is not without significance, but the linguistics we appeal to is not just that of the internal relations of linguistic forms. It is also outwardly defined to include the social, historical and economic contexts in which language is formed and used. Thus we expect to find maps reflecting population growth and movement, out- and in-migration, political trends and voting records as well as highway and railroad networks.
Our Editorial Board comprises a group of distinguished linguists from throughout the world. Learn more about these board members and how their own published work illustrates research of the scope and quality we hope to feature in the journal.
Written by Neil Smith, Ianthi Tsimpli, Gary Morgan & Bencie Woll
Every once in a while Nature gives us insight into the human condition by providing us with a unique case whose special properties illumine the species as a whole. Christopher is such an example. On first inspection his fate may not seem fortunate. Because he is unable to look after himself, he lives in sheltered accommodation; on a variety of standard tests of intelligence he scores poorly, with particular difficulty on non-verbal tests; his horizons seem to be limited to the performing of routine tasks of a non-demanding nature. His life looks sadly circumscribed. Until one turns to language.
Despite his disabilities, which mean that everyday tasks are burdensome chores, Christopher is a linguistic wonder: with varying degrees of fluency, he can read, write, speak, understand and translate more than twenty languages. Playing noughts and crosses is beyond him, but interpreting between German and Spanish is easy; he doesn’t understand the kind of make-believe play that 3 or 4 year old children indulge in – pretending that a banana is a telephone for instance, but he learns new languages, from Berber to Welsh with enviable ease. His drawing ability indicates a severely low IQ of between 40 and 60 (a level hinting at ineducability), yet his English language ability indicates a superior IQ in excess of 120 (a level more than sufficient to enter University). Christopher is a savant, someone with an island of startling talent in a sea of inability.
When you meet Christopher for the first time you are not sure of the best way to interact with him, as he is very shy but nonetheless interested in you. For anybody who studies language though, the way to communicate becomes immediately clear. You have to talk about language with him, not just what languages you speak but why you speak them, how you learnt them, how much you know them and what words you can share from those languages with him. For someone who loves language and the things you can do with languages it’s easy to talk to Christopher.
In an earlier book The Mind of a Savant we documented Christopher’s linguistic abilities in his first language, English, and his many ‘second’ languages, showing him to be an exceptional individual manifesting unusual and unattested asymmetries between abilities and deficits within and outside language. In our new book The Signs of a Savant we revisit Christopher, elaborating on his obsession and talent for language, but concentrating on how we taught him British Sign Language. BSL is a fascinating challenge for Christopher since it confronts his genius for language with a new modality which requires abilities where he is weakest. He is mildly autistic, severely apraxic and visuo-spatially impaired, a combination which augurs poorly for his learning a signed language, which necessitates making eye-contact and the production and perception of fine motor differences of hand-shape and facial expression.
Somewhat surprisingly he wanted to learn to sign immediately even though he was faced with obvious barriers to picking it up: there are no books; you have to learn by looking into other people’s faces and you have to move your hands in complicated and coordinated ways. All of these factors caused Christopher problems but because the desire to learn about sign language burned so bright for him he slowly overcame these barriers and learned to sign. This book is about that journey and what we all learned from Christopher’s learning process: about language, about signing and ultimately about how the human mind works.
Although his production of BSL was considerably poorer than that of his spoken languages, his comprehension fell within the range defined by the students in the comparator group. Interestingly, he showed an asymmetry in his control of linguistic phenomena from the formal domain of language, such as negation, questions and agreement on the one hand, and his failure to master the classifier system – a domain where the control of topographic space is also required on the other. So our study sheds light on the similarities and differences between BSL and spoken languages: the similarities have to do with what is known as Universal Grammar – the language faculty as an autonomous component of human cognition; the differences have to do with the visuo-spatial Modality whose use represents a serious challenge to autistic individuals. At the same time, the asymmetries in his abilities provide evidence for the Modularity hypothesis of human cognition; the results of some of the tests we carried out support a particular theory of Memory, and Christopher’s case in general gives us insight into the nature of the human Mind. We emphasize ‘human’: despite the uniqueness of his case, Christopher is not a ‘Martian’. As we document in detail, the dissociations and asymmetries he manifests can be seen in other populations both pathological and typically developing.
If you want insight into a unique mind read The Signs of a Savant.
Out now in Paperback | 978-0-521-61769-7 | 232 pages | £21.99