What a linguist does goo-goo

When they’re not wading through piranha-infested waters or fighting for linguistic justice, many linguists can be found cooing at babies. Or rather aiming their microphones and cameras while simultaneously transcribing  each ‘coo’, ‘ga-ga’ and ‘mama’. Linguists are fascinated by babies, and by the mysterious and astonishing way in which babies progress from babbling to speech at a rate that most of us who try to learn a language as adults can only gawp at in awe.

British linguist David Crystal likes to congratulate friends with newborn babies on “the birth of fresh data”. Many more linguists have taken full professional advantage of their little bundles of data. Salikoko Mufwene, for example, who has written extensively on creole languages and conducted field research on Jamaican, once wrote a paper called “On the Language Bioprogram Hypothesis: Hints from Tazie”. It turns out that the Tazie in question is Salikoko’s daughter, and the paper is based on observations of her speech between the ages of 20 and 30 months.

Deb Roy went even further, installing video cameras and microphones all over his own house capturing his baby son’s every ‘goo’ and ‘gaa’ in order to understand better how speech develops in the first years. By 2009, he reported that

We have completed the recording phase of the project yielding
the Speechome corpus of approximately 90,000 hours of video
and 140,000 hours of audio recordings spanning my son’s life
from birth to age three.

Read more on the project website, and gasp.

Probably the best known linguist of all, Noam Chomsky, is not usually known for couching his theories in the cuddliest of prose. There’s even an online Chomskybot which generates incomprehensible Chomskyan paragraphs worryingly close to the real  thing. I remember as a new postgraduate student trying to read Chomsky’s latest book and making no more sense of it than I can make of this example of the Chomskybot’s work:

Furthermore, the notion of level of grammaticalness is rather different from a stipulation to place the constructions into these various categories. Conversely, the appearance of parasitic gaps in domains relatively inaccessible to ordinary extraction is not quite equivalent to the ultimate standard that determines the accuracy of any proposed grammar.

But even Chomsky goes soft when presented with a baby. When arguing for his theory about the innateness of human language, Chomsky frequently compares his granddaughter, picking up language automatically from the adults speaking around her, with her pet kitten, who is surrounded by those same adults, and apparently hears the same sounds, yet never gets beyond ‘meow’.

Linguists who doubted Chomsky’s claim that only human babies had this amazing linguistic ability, even went so far as to try to bring up a baby chimpanzee in a human family, and teach him American Sign Language. As documented in the fantastic film, Project Nim, poor Nim Chimpsky (yes, really) never developed language  in the way human children are doing all the time, though he was quite capable of suffering as a result of the treatment he received.

In contrast to Nim, deaf or hearing human babies whose parents use a sign language, invariably start to sign themselves, progressing through just the same stages as hearing babies starting to speak, including babbling with their hands:

Tragically many deaf babies in the Caribbean (and elsewhere) don’t progress from those first babbles to full sign languages because their hearing parents do not know how to sign, and are generally given little help or encouragement to learn. A graduate student of mine, Kesica Brewster, is currently doing research looking at how the signing of Deaf adults who learned to sign very late differs from those with signing Deaf parents. Her initial findings suggest that there is a great difference, and that missing out on that early language exposure affects people for the rest of their lives.

Deaf children have also taught us about the extent of human linguistic creativity. When a school for deaf children was opened in Managua, Nicaragua, in 1980, the children, who came from all around the country, knew no sign language. As they mixed with each other, made friends, joked and played, they created their own language, on their own, without being taught by adults. Linguists watched in amazement as a new language, Nicaraguan Sign Language, was born in front of their eyes. A very similar situation happened in Trinidad, when the first deaf children came to live in the dormitories of Cascade School for the Deaf, and Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language was born.

In case you’re wondering why babies are on my mind, this morning I became an uncle for the first time when my sister gave birth to a baby girl called Eliza. Even as I sit here feeling overwhelmed with the wonder of fresh data a beautiful, unfathomable, miraculous little life, I can’t help but also think of Eliza Doolittle singing to one of the (tragically) few linguists in the movies, ‘Enry ‘Iggins, in My Fair Lady. There’s even a computer programme, designed to chat like a human being, also called ELIZA. Try it out, and consider how even the cleverest computer scientists in the world haven’t come close to designing a computer that can match the stunning linguistic feats that my loverly little niece will soon be performing so effortlessly.

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