I guess you had to be there

Just like most books I read, the things I write about tend to stay with me for several days after I’ve finished the last edit. Sometimes this means that I have to go back and tweak some more, and other times it’s just being a little obsessive over minor details. The ideas feel too unfinished and I’m always afraid I’ve done a poor job of adequately explaining anything. Then my rational brain enters the picture and reminds me that editing is my friend and the mysteries of the universe will never be solved in my lifetime, so I shouldn’t sweat the fact that I couldn’t explain them all in 1,000-1,500 words.

Nevertheless, I believe this is behind my love of the follow-up post and links. It’s a chance to just get rid of those ghosts once and for all. And as I’ve mentioned before, once I notice something, I can’t NOT notice it anymore, so it didn’t surprise me to see this article over the weekend: Pondering Prosody: Talking Birds, Chatty Babies, and the Mysteries of Language. It was written by a biologist, Ursula Goodenough. She discusses what prosody is (basically, intonation) and how it is being displayed by not only the (in)famous babbling twins, but also a parrot named José. She wonders if these displays of prosodic mimicking are actually evidence of hidden linguistic talent. She ends her article with: “And then, a central question: Might the boys in fact be communicating “real” information via a grammar/vocabulary that’s private to themselves, with the prosody added for effect? Or are they just having fun?”

It’s interesting that in every article I’ve read about the twins that included interviews with linguists or cognitive scientists, they all say, “Yeah, the baby’s imitating adult intonation and getting ready to associate that with actual meaning in a year or two.” However, everyone else – including scientists who presumably understand the value of strong empirical evidence driving the development of a theory – wants to believe that it’s a mysterious, profoundly inscrutable behavior that is remarkably rare.

I wonder if they have their own language.

The cognitive abilities for having a sophisticated conversation that would match adult prosody patterns are not typically present in children of 18 months. Normal behavior for this age would include imitating adult behavior and routines, role playing, or looking for objects that are no longer in direct sight, which seems exactly what these boys are doing. They’re right on schedule, if you ignore the fact that forming some legible words and not just engaging in repetitive babbling is also a milestone for 18-month-olds. Children are just becoming aware of the world beyond purely self, so why do we think they can jump straight into complex social interaction and use adult conversational patterns to navigate those relationships?

Perhaps it comes down to the fact that these negotiations and use of language are so ingrained, so common and automatic to us now that it’s hard to imagine a time when they were beyond our capabilities. Or maybe we’re too unwilling to admit that kids are just moving along at a normal pace instead of an accelerated pace. We live in a culture that rewards achievement and individuality and talent, so perhaps we are now looking too hard for anything that will allow us to stand out. At the same time, in this age when everyone gets a trophy just for showing up, we are possibly too enthusiastic and unrealistic with heaping accolades on average performance, and may be losing sight of the value of accurately evaluating the ability of children as they learn skills and gain knowledge.

In a certain sense, it’s hard for me to argue that this behavior should really be considered unremarkable rather than the subject of a media storm, because if researchers had never paid attention to certain behaviors that everyone took for granted, perhaps we would never have explanations for many aspects of human nature or cognition. Certainly this is true of language. For example, had Dr.William Stokoe assumed that deaf people were linguistically retarded and just using primitive visual representations of English, we might not yet know that ASL is a full language in its own right, with as much grammatical and lexical complexity as any spoken language that exists.

But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

As for the parrot, he’s clearly imitating his previous owner. Once again, it would be inaccurate to believe that a bird could not only understand all the complexities of human social interaction – especially since José would be gathering his information from only one side of the conversation – but then could also put it into perfect linguistic patterns that are unnatural to his species. Even the famous Alex, as talented and intelligent as he was, would not have been able to learn the full grammatical and semantic range of human language.

Interestingly enough, I think José is doing a better job at prosody than the babies are. The babies are focusing on repeating the same basic pattern. This is perfectly understandable and I’m not trying to take away from the milestone that they have reached. The boys will actually be using this language for real communication throughout their lives, so it makes sense that they focus on smaller, more manageable chunks so they can incorporate them into their existing knowledge and then move on to the next chunk to learn.

The bird, however, will not become a fully-functioning speaker of English. He’s essentially learning a song. There is still some repetition, but the range he displays is wider and there are more nuances than in the twins’ routine. Additionally, the bird captures these patterns and nuances more precisely than the boys do, who lapse into loud, monotone babbling several times in the video. Remarkably, José even catches conversation fillers – uh, um – as well as different laughs. He ‘sings’ the first kind of laugh a few times, but if you hold out to the end of the video, you’ll get an example of a more enthusiastic laugh and its aftermath.

Hello, my baby! Hello, my honey! Hello, my ragtime gaaaaaal!

Finally, an intriguing aspect of José’s performance is that he only does this when he’s alone. The person responsible for the video had to sneak up on him to film in secret. Language is for communication, not just solitary play, so if it’s really language, why not use it in front of people, too?

He’s the Michigan J. Frog of parrots!

Now that frog could sing!

9 thoughts on “I guess you had to be there

    • I loved that he got the laughs so dead on! It reminded me of my parakeet who used to talk – not nearly as clearly but clear enough that you could distinguish what the words were. And she would imitate my laugh, but usually when she was being naughty or stubborn. That bird just killed me.

      As for the ‘secret’ – you might want to ask me that after I’ve been consistent for a year or so! ;) I wasn’t so regular about posting for most of the past two years. Honestly, right now it just feels like I’ve finally opened up the floodgates and am letting myself write what I really think about. When I first started taking pictures, I had to look for ideas, but after a few weeks, I felt like I saw a potential picture every where I turned.

      I really enjoy your writing on your blog. You’ve got a great voice and good sense of pacing. I say just follow any idea, no matter how big or small it may seem! Just see where it takes you :)

      • Thank you for the advice and the compliment. It means a lot coming from a professor! I’ve always enjoyed writing. It’s not that I lack ideas, it’s more that I lack a quiet place in my home to write. My house is small and has always been the hub for my daughters’ friends. We live so close to their university that they commute and still live at home. Once my oldest leaves in July for med. school it will probably get much quieter here! (Probably a little too quiet!)

  1. Like both of you, I am forever tweaking sentences, paragraphs…even weeks after things have posted. I guess some of us are just hard-wired to pay attention to the details.

    It is no surprise to me that you are a linguist and a lover of language and words. I have to admit, I delighted in watching the video of the babies and created my own narrative about socks (“What’s with the one sock, Jon? The floor is cold. Don’t be crazy; put your sock on.”) And then I thought, this is normal developmental stuff. More remarkable is when you catch twins REALLY doing the secret language thing. I suspect we will start to see more of that kind of intentional, almost conversational babble now that everyone has a video camera at his or her fingertips.

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I’ll be back!

  2. Pingback: Babbling twins « Sentence first

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