Jean Berko Gleason —
Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life

Jean Berko Gleason is a living legend in the field of psycholinguistics — how language emerges, and what it tells us about how we think and who we are. She has helped to illustrate the remarkable ordinary human capacity to begin to speak, and she’s continued to break new ground in exploring what this may teach us about adults as about the children we’re raising. We keep learning about the human gift, as she puts it, to be conscious of ourselves and to comment on that. For her, the exploration of language is a frontier every bit as important and thrilling as exploring outer space or the deep sea.

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is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Boston University.

Pertinent Posts

Our delightful exercise with 10 of the 27 drawings that comprise the "wug test." Try them out with the kids in your life (or, yes, even by yourself). They'll demonstrate how children as young as three or four can internalize complex grammatical codes no one has necessarily ever tried to teach them. And let us know what surprised you!

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A child plays with building blocks at a language school in Brazil.

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This discussion reminded me of taking my ~2YO niece to see my grandmother, who was blinded by MS. Before we went into her room in the nursing home, I said, "Sally, Grandmother is very old and her eyes don't work anymore so she can't see you. Is it OK if she wants to touch your face so she can know what you look like?" Sally said, "But she will see me when she is new again, right?"

"You're not an old man."

"That's good!"

Yes. I cringed at that little sentence too! A teaching moment, for sure.

Listening to two of these wonderful voices, I am so happy to learn so much early in the morning. Thank you . You , Jean Berko Gleason said it as clearly and brilliantly as I have heard, we are human beings because we can be conscious of our selves. When the children spoke to their mom and the child giggling about dad not yet being old, we all have so much to learn about how old is incredibly beautiful even if my favorite Andy Rooney said, it wasn't. I could continue to listen for a week , a year , and more of what you are saying learning hopefully teaching too.

I have two sons. One of my sons lives and works in Japan, is fluent in Japanese, knows some Spanish and his "native" language is midwest English. My other son has migrated to Georgia and been in that region for several years. His "native" language, of course, is midwest English as well, but his speech patterns and pronunciation have shifted to a more localized version of English. I am an early childhood teacher in an inner city, high density Spanish speaking school district. This program was highly provocative and informing for me. I am always discerning, analyzing, translating (even English into English)the means to translate relatively complex concepts into understandable terms for my young and eager learners. With the right verbage, the right context, they seem to be able to move right up Bloom's Taxonomy.....but honestly, I feel as if it is more than the verbage or visual or tactile clues.....I have listened to your programs involving the Ojibwe and Adele Diamond, listened repeated times actually, and passed on encouragement to listen to my colleagues.....this program further informs my own fascination with the acquisition of, use of, culture of language but has added to my consideration that there are factors inherent in the very sound of the words.....a word or the combination of words, particularly in story telling, but even in an unintentional, and perhaps less dramatic, context.....this program brought tears to my, of course, I will share my enthusiasm for this program with my colleagues, especially with those that have young children at home.

I spoke with my son that lives in Japan today....Among other things, we spoke about whether or what kind of sensations he feels when he is speaking English or Japanese. Our discussion revealed that he does feel differences that he agreed could go back to what may be defined as bracketing cultural similarities or differences.

Thank you so much. I enjoyed your program very much.

I am a contributing member of public radio. I give to Michigan, 104.1 on my FM dial, each fall and each spring......

Photo for Jean Berko Gleason, related to children having a large animal vocabulary. As the mother of this child, Seth Hodges, I bought him small plastic toy animals very often. I collected at least one hundred different animals, including fish which he played with in the tub. This photo was taken in Tallinn, Estonia in 2002, and Seth could name many animals in both English and Estonian. He also knew their sounds/voices in both languages (frogs "ribbit" in English, but they "croak" with a rolled r in Estonian). Thank you for studying what this might mean about me :-)
Sandra Hodges

Listening this morning of the guest's observation of what distinguishes the human animal from what we call "animals" and that the distinction is self consciousness, consciousness of ourselves, I've always wondered how it is we can say that. We know so little of our own consciousness, what makes us think, as your guest this morning also observed that as sentient beings, all animals are not conscious of their mortality? Try to get a dog to intentionally run off of a cliff (not that I've tried!). What if, in a way they are more evolved and are at peace with their mortality. What if they are attune to life at a far deeper level than humans? What if our longing for peace and tranquility, regardless of the means by which we pursue it isn't a Jungian collective unconsciousness from the time before Neolithic man when we were at peace and more tranquil, more a part of all life than we are today?

I enjoyed the discussion on language this morning. Ms. Gleason's comments about each child developing his/her 'own language system' rang true to me. She might be interested in another example. My eldest son was considered a 'late talker' - we lived in morocco during the time he was about 15 months to 34 months... i spoke english with him, but worked full time. My sister in law looked after him in our house during the day and spoke arabic to him, I spoke french with her. When we got back to US, the pediatrician here was concerned about language delay. I put it down to the mixed language inputs, although later he turned out to have ADD/dyslexia and still at 17 has trouble with the physical and mental process of creating written output - poor spelling, handwriting, grammar - although for the last 5 years has tested with reading comprehension 5-6 years above his grade level. But what was really interesting was that the as a young child (eg, 18 mo-2.5 years) he developed a vast array of gestures to convey what he wanted, in addition to his gradual use of a small selection of arabic and english words during this time. My husband's family used a lot of gestures when in a big family setting - to convey a message to someone else in the room without having to add to the 2-3 conversations already going on in the room or for privacy. My son adopted these, and created a load of his own, - I think by the time we left he used about 25 gestures, which he might use alongside a word or two - I had no trouble understanding what he wanted to convey. In another curious development around the time he was learning to read, in addition to relying heavily on 'contextual cluee' he went through a period where he would actually change the grammar and words of the sentence he was trying to read, to mean something quite similar, that made spoken sense, but was not what was written on the page, he wasnt often successful in phonetic decoding, but later was a more enthusiastic reader than his younger brothers, who had fewer reading issues at the outset. He established his own systems to leapfrog his constraints.

After listening to today's program on language acquisition,(excellent!!), I began thinking about how to use of smart phones may change the next generation's understanding of and memory of THEMSELVES. The end of this segment had the speaker sharing with his audience that moment when his child took more than two steps. None of us at age 50 and older will be able to say our childhoods were documented on video, recorded auditorily and visually, as extensively as those children who are babies now. Has anyone thought to ask both the negative and positive implications of this? Will parents stop telling the stories to their children of that moment when baby girl/ boy took those steps, said that word, etc? Or will all this ability to capture, in real time, these moments, these milestones, enhance the memory, facilitate richer conversations and more celebration around the child's development? How will this impact the parent, as s/he grows old? How will it impact the child, as s/he grows up? Will we stop journaling those precious moments, will we no longer talk about them, but just hand the iPhone over to someone else to look at and listen for themselves. Will we, in the process, LOSE language, and stop talking to one another? I am a special education elementary public school teacher. Language and communication is paramount to the work I engage in every day. This area is of great interest to me, as a teacher, parent, grand and great-grandparent, as well as from the perspective of caring for elder parents in my home who are both now 91. Dad is slowly losing language, communicating in small bits, sometimes jumbled sentences and disjointed phrases. Instead of the celebration of first steps, there is the reliving of the last falling down incident. Communication with my partner is in this mix, too. I thank you for listening to me. I thank you for being out there and for all the richness you bring to my life! Peace in our time, Irene

Wow, what a load "On Being" is. Seriously. The very core of Journalism is the asking of challenging questions which seek the truth behind the words. That never happens on this show. It's instead a venue for new age hype and charletans. Give a little thought to the junk you are foisting on the public please.

What questions would you have asked?

Yes, what questions would you have asked?

Thank you again for continuing to open my mind. I teach young children so this was very insightful! P.s. I listen every Sunday morning....

Thank you for a repeat (encore) on a subject that has always fasinated me.It enlightens on why we do not need to have ONE language and points up one of the effects of colonializm.

Wonderful interview with Dr Berko-GLeason. I have been a student of her writing/philosophy since my first introduction to the wug test back in the early 1970s as a graduate student of speech-langauge pathology. I have had my own college students replicate the Wug test with one or two children in order to experience first hand the wonder of children's language rules. Thank you for the podcast of the interview; I have provided a link to it for my current students who begin classes this week... a great way to engage them in week 1 of the semester's study of infants and toddlers.

One of my favorite language development stories comes from a 4year old who was giving me a tour of his home as I began my duty as the evening babysitter. As he showed me his "mom and dad's" bedroom he commented on the photos on the dresser. Pointing to the wedding photo of his parents he said: "That's my mom and dad when they were young". And then pointing to a photo of what appeared to be his (perhaps deceased) grandparents or great-grandparents he said "And that is my mom and dad when they get old."


Good program, although I would like to note that Ms. Berko should perhaps refrain from making guesses about why children with autism sometimes do not develop language, especially when she acknowledges not working extensively with neurology/imaging. Autism is a neurobiological disease. Imaging studies show differential language processing. As a parent of two kids with ASD (one with language delay) the idea that language delay results from a lack of desire for attachment is disheartening and I suspect based upon dated theories of the etiology of ASD.

Since we're talking about language - is autism really considered a "disease?" Not challenging you, but just curious, as I've been trying to learn more about autism lately, after a family member's new diagnosis, and we have been referring to it as a "neurobiological condition." Somehow this seems a less stigmatizing way to talk about his mind and how it works ... but is it accurate?

Listening to Jean Berko Gleason's observations on learning language leads me to wonder about Down Syndrome children and the learning of language. By age five, our granddaughter (Down Syndrome) has acquired a normal vocabulary and cognitive skills which she demonstrates through her actions and responses to instructions and questions. She does speak, but like many Down children, struggles with verbalizing all those beautiful words that she knows. It would interesting to learn more about how children with Down Syndrome learn to speak in comparison with other children.

I am a 1st grade school teacher in New Orleans, Louisiana. I teach immersion French at Audubon Charter School. Every word of this show resonates with what I experience on a daily basis. There is so much interesting information that I would like a paper version of this conversation to be able to get back to it easily. Would you consider publishing this story in a printed magazine?
I would also appreciate a bibliography of articles or books in socio-linguistics applied to children.
Thank you so much for this extremely interesting show. It blew me away!

I caught a portion of “On Being” regarding the topic of “Unfolding Language” on the car radio on WAMU (Washington, D.C.) this morning (January 6, 2013) and heard Professor Jean Berko Gleason mention the ancient cave painting in France of a horse. Her reference to the artist as “she” and “her” was of particular interest. I’m sure this must be the same cave painting that I first saw several years ago in my college art history book. I found this new information on the painting to be fascinating. Did Professor Gleason happen to mention how, when, and by whom the determination of the artist’s gender was finally made after all these millennia? (Or perhaps one of your listeners may know the answer?) Thank you.

I received an enormous amount of flack when I first suggested in a letter to the Boston Globe about 20 years ago that cave paintings might have been made by women. (I got anonymous letters full of religious claims.) Recent research on the handprints left on the walls of the caves indicates that most of them were females:

Here's a link to an article about the artists who made the cave paintings, many of whom may have been women, based on analyses of the hand prints they left. I also checked my records, and my letter to the Boston Globe noting that we shouldn't just assume that the pictures were all made by men was sent in 1980! If the link doesn't show, you can search for "women artists cave paintings" and articles will pop up from National Geographic and the Smithsonian, as well as others.

I was fascinated with the interview with Jean Berko Gleason as an anthropologist and as a parent watching 3 children acquire language - - a most intriguing thing to observe. Our son seemed to grasp patterns, though sometimes incorrectly extended beyond actual usage, at a very early age. For example, possessive pronouns. He heard us say his, hers, yours, ours, theirs and so he would respond "mines" instead of "mine" for things that belonged to him. He also reasoned that if something were done "on purpose", then other things might happen "on accident" rather than "by accident". Regarding the hallmarks of Homo sapiens, I used to teach a course on human evolution, and used a model suggested in an essay entitled "The Evolution of Man's Capacity for Culture" and also supposedly unique characteristics suggested by the linguist Hockett. One by one, these "unique" factors came into question. And why shouldn't they since morphological characteristics of humans developing from primates and other mammals can be seen as transitional? My present feeling is that there few if any differences between humans and great apes IN KIND, but some of the differences IN DEGREE are so profound they might as well be in kind! Particularly important, I feel, are "displacement" (ability to project into the past and future) and "self awareness".

When my daughter, Hannah, was about four--and just learning how contractions work--she came up with "amn't, her contraction of "am not" of course, not knowing that conventionally, in the phrase "I am not," we contract the "I am" and not the "am not," though "am not" is where "ain't" comes from and "amn't" is perfectly acceptable in some communities (and Joyce uses it in _Ulysses_).

say what is the credit for the uptempo music as the credits are read? i liked it.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Rich, the track is "Mike Mills" from Air's Walkie Talkie album. If you want to listen to the full track again, stream it from our show playlist.

I think it is very interesting how Jean Gleason discussed all sides of the arguments- nature vs. nurture. She does state her opinion, that language develops through exposure and experience (which goes a bit along the lines of a Dewey perspective) and gives examples. This piece has opened my mind up to many research projects that have been going on which will help me come to my own conclusions as a person and a teacher. I believe that we are innately born with the ability to learn language; but the actual learning of that language is highly dependent on our environment and the people around us. What is developed relies entirely on others and their language.
Emotional underpinnings is a very interesting term- and connecting that to those who have autism is a very interesting thought. It is a possibility that those diagnosed with autism who have trouble communicating because they lack the emotional underpinnings connected to language development.
I LOVE the connection to her daughter with "held" and "holded". I deal with these sort of mis-speakings often within the classroom. And although I try to correct them discreetly, I find that the students usually continue to use the term that they were initially using. But, it is interesting that eventually the older they get and the more they are exposed to people using the terms in the correct manner- they too will begin to use the correct term.
The idea of the Wug is amazing.. I have never seen or heard of someone approaching language and research in that way. By intertwining language and mythical beings is a fantastic way to assess ones understanding of language and the way it is supposed to be used. Like Gleason said, if you use the term "dog" or "cat" the child could very well have just memorized the correct tense in which to speak it, or they have probably heard multiple times in their own experience that more than one dog is referred to as 'dogs'. With a Wug, there is no chance of that happening. We can assess the core of the students understanding. BRILLIANT.

On hearing the quote 'the teacher holded the baby rabbit...' reminds me of how my son (who has spent 4 years living in France from the age of 2) continues to talk about things being 'more bigger, more faster'. No matter how many times I tell him the correct English way to describe these things, he continues, even now, aged 7 to use a mix of French grammar with his English.
The 'giraffe eating mostly leaves' reminds me of my older son who informed me on day, aged about 7, that 'FIRSTLY we will do this and NEXTLY we will do that'. I like the word 'nextly' .... it should be a word!

This interview, and the embedded clips, are a beautiful gift. We do know, however, that autistic kids are not only motivated to connect and develop language, but do so naturally. They are the kids identified by Ann Peters and Barry Prizant in the 1970s as 'gestalt language processors.' Perceiving much larger 'units' of sound than 'analytic' children, neurotypical and autistic gestalt processors first perceive 'units' that can be whole songs, flows of intonation, or the sounds that accompany a scene, a media rendition, or a snippet of life. Here is a link to a book and articles by Marge Blanc that tell the other part of the story of natural language acquisition in autism:

The articles are available at: Marge Blanc's book is entitled Natural Language Acquisition on the Autism Spectrum: The Journey from Echolalia to Self-Generated Language (Communication Development Center, 2012). Barry Prizant's latest book is Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism (Simon and Schuster, 2015)

Has she or does she know work being done on Tourette's and/or swear words coming out in the elderly. I was a caregiver for my motherinlaw who had been a prim and proper Southern "Lady" all her life but became a swearing fend as dementia approached. Where does this verbal proclivity come from?

The year my twins were 2, we lived in Berlin, and they attended a small all-German daycare. B/t our flat and the daycare was a neighborhood toystore, and (may not surprisingly) our #1 souvenir from that year was the collection of Schleich animals figures we slowly acquired. The twins are college juniors now, and we still call polar bears Eisbaers! They're also very into figuring out how to teach computers to learn like humans do, and I just sent them Dr. Gleason's explanation of what it means to be human--self awareness and the ability to reflect. On Being informs my parenting, my teaching, my research and my own self-awareness every single week--thank you!

I always find On Being fascinating but this particular program just resonated as we observe our grandchild # 8. We do not always have the time to concentrate on what our kids say or grandchildren but every point mentioned, from animals, feelings, storing knowledge, and the "ed" at the end of words that is corrected developmentally, was just excellent.
Thank you! elaine

I loved listening. And I am also fascinated by what comes out of our mouths...and the why and how and when of the what that comes out. Languages came easily to me as well, and I plan to learn more than the 5 I have already studied. And years ago, as a stay-at-home mom and attachment parent, ( and a talker ;) I experienced both of my children speaking early. They each have lists of the first few months of words they said, with the date when they first said them. (Once verbal, I kept a running list for several months for each: they are now 17 and 22.) As well, I marvelled at how they said certain funny things--how they pieced together the parts. When around five, my son said two priceless things. The first was the question: "Was the world black and white before it got coloured?" And, "Mom, can you get the 'wak' out of my ear?" Of course,I surmised, laughing. If he has 'waks' in two ears, he clearly only had 'wak' in one ear. I felt lucky to hear such a neologism. My sister, when around three, said while travelling en famille, in the car, "I heard a smell." ( I'll leave that for your imaginations. ;)
Thanks for the great show.

I hope you can answer this question. I have been thinking a lot about language and I love trying to learn a new word or sentence from a language. I have always and as I come from a German ancestry I was wonder if it is because it is part of my DNA although I was not born in Germany and never spoke the language while growing up. It then got me to wondering how does language evolve when there are so many different languages being spoken all over the world and children learn , hello, yes, no, please, thank you in their Mother tongue yet it is the same in all languages the same words just differently pronounced. then we have English which attempts to interpret every language and this confuses me more as to why there are so many languages and everyone wants to learn english! I believe you are correct professor Gleason, Language is as important as the quest for exploring Outer Space or the Deep Sea, well at least for me.

Listened to the unedited version. About "ambiguous" in German (my mother- tongue): try "zweideutig", "uneindeutig", "unklar" (because we can be ambiguous, we too. ;) )

Message to Prof Jean Berko Gleason - I understand your origins are Hungarian (and so am I - a Hungarian) I don't understand that you never researched your own language that is the most interesting language and nothing is like it.
Could you please elaborate on it why not?
Thank you