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  • Baby Kanzi was recently adopted, and adjusting to life in his new home.

  • His mother was working with a language coach to learn some English, and Kanzi usually came along

  • though he didn’t appear to pay much attention.

  • But the language coach noticed that he seemed to be picking up on how to communicate,

  • just by watching his mother’s lessons.

  • Oddly enough, it appeared that he was picking things up faster than his mom.

  • For example, the phrasesyou tickleandtickle youmeant two different things,

  • and Kanzi’s mom, she was having a hard time understanding that syntax.

  • But one day Kanzi was hanging out, playing with stuffed animals, and the coach asked him

  • to make the dog bite the snake. Kanzi put the snake in the dog’s mouth,

  • like it was no big deal. It was a really big deal.

  • Because Kanzi is a bonobo. He’s actually a language superstar,

  • even among the elite research primates, like Koko the Gorilla. Kanzi is the first ape to demonstrate

  • that language can be acquired spontaneously through observation, without planned training,

  • and the first to show a rudimentary understanding of grammar, syntax, and semantics.

  • Again, really. big. deal.

  • Especially because for years humans have proclaiming that it’s language that sets us apart from other animals.

  • But are we really alone?

  • Turns out, that question keeps getting more and more complicated.

  • Technically we define language as a set of spoken, written, or signed words

  • and the way we combine them to communicate meaning.

  • If we change that definition to include the use of complex grammar,

  • then maybe we are alone. But if language is simply the ability to communicate

  • through a meaningful sequence of symbols, as I might do while looking for a bathroom

  • in Sweden, or Kanzi does when she’s asking to roast marshmallows, well then

  • welcome to the club, apes!

  • [INTRO]

  • We communicate, in part, by engaging our brains and bodies to make sounds

  • that let us transfer thoughts from our brain to other people’s brains.

  • But of course language is more than just making air vibrate with sound.

  • I can communicate by moving my hands, which you might have noticed I do pretty frequently.

  • Or by using visual symbols. All of these forms of language allow us to

  • comprehend things weve never actually witnessed, and exchange information with each other quickly

  • and effectively to, you know, get a job, or be a friend, or use a metaphor.

  • It’s hard to imagine a fulfilling life without some kind of language.

  • Humans have nearly 7,000 different languages, and no matter how different they sound,

  • we can break down their basic structure in the same way, using the same three building blocks.

  • The smallest of them are phonemes. These are very short, distinctive sound units

  • --like a, t, ch, sh, f. Like stuff like that. English uses about 40 of them.

  • Phonemes go together to make morphemes, which are the smallest units that carry meaning.

  • This can be words, or parts of words, like a prefix or suffix.

  • For example, the word SPEECH is a morpheme that contains four phoneme sound units-- s/puh/eee/ch.

  • From there you can arrange morphemes into your language’s grammar,

  • or system of rules allowing you to say the things that you want to say!

  • So those 40 English phonemes give us over 100,000 morphemes that produce the more than

  • 616,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, which can then be arranged into an infinite

  • number of sentences, paragraphs, Wu-Tang lyrics, or Shakespearean plays.

  • And just as the structure of language starts small, so does how we learn language. And

  • we start very young. The word infant comes from the Latin infans,

  • meaningnot speaking”-- but as early as four months, they can recognize differences in speech

  • and start to read lips, matching mouth movements with their corresponding sounds,

  • like ah ee eye oh ooo. And even at this age, you gotta watch what you say about kids in their presence,

  • because this also marks the beginning of receptive language,

  • or the ability to understand what’s being said both to, and about us.

  • Soon that receptive language blooms to accommodate productive language,

  • when instead of just understanding other people, babies start developing the ability to produce words.

  • Of course that takes a while, but in the meantime, they get a lot of practice babbling.

  • Beginning at about four months they start to make all sorts of sounds, although you may get a da-da or ma-ma

  • babbling is NOT an imitation of adult speech. In fact, it typically includes sounds from many different languages,

  • and a stranger couldn’t tell if a kid was Italian, or Kenyan, or Korean,

  • just by the sound of her babbling.

  • Similarly, deaf babies watch their parents signing and start babbling with their hands.

  • By about ten months, that babbling morphs into something that starts to make sense,

  • and ma-ma probably really means Mama. Now, without exposure to other languages,

  • a child will actually lose the ability to both hear and create particular tones and sounds

  • that aren’t part of his or her household language.

  • So, someone who speaks English around the house soon won’t be able to differentiate between certain phonemes in Mandarin

  • if they heard them, for instance, or between aspirated and non-aspirated consonants in Hindi.

  • By the time theyre mowing down their first birthday cake, most kids will be entering the one-word stage of language development.

  • They now know that sounds carry specific meanings, and can connect the sounddogto that furry thing across the room.

  • By around 18 months, their capacity for learning new words

  • jumps from about one a week to one a day,

  • and by the time theyre two, theyre probably speaking in two-word statements.

  • These choppy sentences are a kind of like telegraphic speech-- they sound like clumsy texts or old-school telegrams,

  • using mostly nouns and verbs. Want juice. No pants. That kind of stuff.

  • These little sentences make sense, and they follow the rules of their language’s syntax.

  • For example, an English speaking child would put an adjective before a noun, black cat,

  • while a Spanish-speaker would reverse that, gato negro.

  • From there the average kid is soon uttering longer phrases and complete sentences,

  • refusing to put pants on, and demanding more crackers.

  • Most humans hit these same milestones during their language development,

  • but there are competing theories about how our infant babbles turn into complex sentences, and how we acquire language.

  • Youll remember B.F. Skinner, the pioneering behaviorist

  • who brought us learning through "reinforcement". He believed language was a product of associative principles and operant conditioning.

  • Skinner argued that a kid learned to associate words with meanings largely through reinforcement.

  • So in the Skinner model, for example, if baby Bruno saysmmmmand his mother gives him some milk,

  • he’d find that the outcome--both the milk and the attention-- rewarding,

  • and eventually work his way up to saying "milk" through these learned associations and shaping processes.

  • It’s good to be understood, right? But as usual, not everyone was on board with Skinner.

  • In particular, legendary American linguist Noam Chomsky argued that a kid like

  • Bruno would never reach his full, complex, sonnet-writing potential if his learning was dependent on conditioning alone.

  • Chomsky instead proposed the idea of innate learning and ubiquitous grammatical categories,

  • pointing out that while the world’s thousands of languages may sound wildly diverse,

  • theyre actually very similar, sharing some basic elements.

  • He called this Universal Grammar.

  • Chomsky’s Universal Grammar posited that all human languages contain nouns, verbs, and adjectives,

  • and humans are born with an innate ability to acquire language, and even a genetic predisposition to learn grammatical rules.

  • Rather than being linguistic blank slates, Chomsky suggested were hard-wired for it from day one.

  • In the end though, were still not sure how we acquire language.

  • However, developmental research and studies of other species have given us a sense that at least some of it is innate,

  • while the role of learning and exposure is also important.

  • So if it’s true that all humans have some innate capacity for language,

  • where in the brain is it sitting? Weve talked a lot about how function is localized in the brain,

  • and that’s definitely true for some aspects of language.

  • But while speaking, reading, writing and even singing all fall under the language umbrella,

  • theirlocationsin the brain are a little more complicated.

  • Consider aphasia, a neurological impairment of language. People can experience lots of different kinds of aphasia

  • depending on whether theyve suffered an injury, or stroke, or a tumor, or dementia.

  • So, maybe they can speak but not read, or sing but barely speak, or write but not read.

  • The region of the brain known as Broca’s area in the left frontal lobe

  • is involved with the production of speech. If I suffered a trauma to this area,

  • I might still comprehend speech, but struggle to speak

  • - although I might still be able to sing, because that’s conducted elsewhere in the brain.

  • On the other hand, if that falling coconut struck another region, called the Wernicke’s area,

  • a region in the left temporal lobe involved in the expression and comprehension of language,

  • I’d still be able to speak, but my language wouldn’t make any sense.

  • So you might find me saying something like, “It was too pizza, but I called purple brother on the television.”

  • Aphasia and other brain injuries remind us how thinking and language are both separate and intricately entwined.

  • For instance, it’s hard to say ifnon-verbalideas come to us first, and then we think of the words to name them,

  • or if instead our thoughts are born in language, or if we’d even be unable to even think without it.

  • And because language often helps to frame your ideas, your thinking might actually be influenced by which language youre using.

  • So what are implications of this if we expand the definition of language to include other species?

  • How might Kanzi’s ability to communicate that he wants a marshmallow affect his thinking,

  • and how might that thinking influence his language progression, and his identity?

  • If only I had the words to describe how fascinating it all is.

  • If you understood the language I was using today, you learned how languages are built from phonemes, morphemes, and grammar,

  • and when children acquire receptive and productive language,

  • and pass through the babbling, one-word and two-word phases of development.

  • You also learned some theories on how we acquire language, what brain areas are involved, and how thinking and language are connected.

  • Thanks for watching, especially to all of our Subbable subscribers.

  • If you’d like to sponsor an episode of Crash Course, or even be animated into an upcoming episode,

  • just go to subbable.com/crashcourse.

  • This episode was written by Kathleen Yale, edited by Blake de Pastino, and our consultant is Dr. Ranjit Bhagwat.

  • Our director and editor is Nicholas Jenkins, the script supervisor is Michael Aranda, who’s also our sound designer,

  • and the graphics team is Thought Café.

Baby Kanzi was recently adopted, and adjusting to life in his new home.

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Language: Crash Course Psychology #16

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    Huang Shao Po posted on 2014/09/11
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