Transcript for Jean Berko Gleason — Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life

November 3, 2011

Krista Tippett, host: Beginning to talk, acquiring language is one of the most ordinary and remarkable things human beings do.

(Sound bite of baby sound)

Ms. Tippett: By the age of three or four, children typically have vocabularies in the thousands of words and a grasp of complex grammar. In fact, as my guest Jean Berko Gleason was one of the first to confirm, young children know grammatical forms that no one ever tries to teach them; and they say things they've never heard anyone say before. She is a pioneer in psycholinguistics — in understanding how language emerges from childhood on; and what it says about how we think and who we are. And she's maintained an exuberant and playful spirit to match her youngest research subjects. This hour, she shares what we keep learning about the human gift, as she puts it, to be conscious of ourselves and to comment on that. Jean Berko Gleason sees this as a frontier every bit as important and thrilling as exploring outer space or the deep sea.

Jean Berko Gleason: We are innately predisposed to pay attention to little children and to talk to them. So let's not just assume that we are scientists sitting around watching babies unfold. We're unfolding with them."

Ms. Tippett: From APM, American Public Media, I'm Krista Tippett. Today, On Being: "Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life."

Jean Berko Gleason is professor emerita of psychology at Boston University. She made her mark on linguistics in 1958 when she published the "wug test." This was, and still is, performed on children, using a simply drawn mythical creature of her devising. "Jean's wug test," as one admiring linguistics student describes it, "was the first to prove that young children analyze the words around them with innate mental structures and, as if by magic, find complicated rules in this chaotic mess — and actually understand them! This was one of those monumental discoveries that laid the foundation for the modern study of linguistics." Jean Berko Gleason's own parents were immigrants from Transylvania. And though she never learned their mother tongue of Hungarian, she was an avid and gifted polyglot from an early age.

Ms. Tippett: As I look at your background, it seems clear that you — you didn't know from childhood that you would be a linguist but that you were always fascinated with languages. And I wonder …

Dr. Gleason: Absolutely.

Ms. Tippett: You know, do you know where that came from? Was that planted somewhere in your family?

Dr. Gleason: Actually — actually there's probably a part of my family that has to do with it. One, I think some people are just interested in language. I mean, I — I just happened to find it easy to talk all kinds of languages and I find it amusing and I just love them. But I think there was a personal thing in my life as well, which is that I had an older brother who had cerebral palsy and he was really smart, in fact he ultimately got a Ph.D. from Cornell. And he was a smart, lovely guy. But he had motoric incapacities, such that his speech was extremely difficult to understand. And I was probably the person who really understood him best. So when I was a kid, I was the person who, when my brother Marty had problems saying something, I was the person who knew what he was saying and told everybody. So I guess my early experience as an interpreter had something to do with it, too.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, that's really interesting. And then you went to college and you studied literature and history and then you just kind of discovered psycholinguistics — or linguistics.

Dr. Gleason: Yes, uh, rather by happenstance. Psycho — well …

Ms. Tippett: Was it psycholinguistics by then?

Dr. Gleason: It was. Well, it wasn't called that; it was called the psychology of language. But I had taken French and Spanish and Arabic and — no I took Arabic later, I'm sorry — and Russian and Norwegian. I don't know a lot — I had taken a lot of languages. But my senior year in college I took a course on the psychology of language, taught by a new young assistant professor, who had just come from the University of Michigan. And his name was Roger Brown, and the course blew me away because it really talked about the things that were interesting to me, about how it is that human beings store language in their heads, how you acquire language, what happens when you loose language.

Ms. Tippett: And Roger Brown then went on to be somebody who made a major break through in this field, right, studying Adam and Eve and Sarah?

Dr. Gleason: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: Were those real names?

Dr. Gleason: No, they weren't, but I think you might be interested to know that although they were made up names, they were real kids. They were kids in the Harvard day care or preschool whatever it was called in those days. It was a big — if you know Cambridge, Massachusetts, there's a psychology building, it's called William James Hall. And where William James Hall used to be — where William James Hall is there used to be a preschool in a Quonset hut. And what this study did was it — it sent people, on like a monthly basis, to children's houses and tape-recorded all of the interaction between the child and parents. And then they came back and gave assistants or us, whoever we were, the tapes. And people transcribed those tapes, typed them out just — just like the script of a play, and then a group of graduate students and Roger Brown would sit around the table looking at these transcripts and say, what's going on here? What are these kids doing; what's their language? What's their grammar? What's their sound system? How do they make a question? You know, we began to really look into what the development of language looked like in a very naturalistic setting.

Ms. Tippett: You know, as I started to really steep myself in understanding what you do and what you know, where it took me was, um, I — I ended up learning German as a young adult and becoming fluent in German.

Dr. Gleason: Mm-hmm, good — "gut," I mean.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, (laugh). And I had this experience — one thing that happened then, which I was recalling was as I really learned the ins and outs of a new language and German of course is very highly structured so, you know, it was quite intentionally learning the ins and outs.

Dr. Gleason: Yes, yes.

Ms. Tippett: I became aware that I didn't know — at least consciously know — much of that about my mother tongue, right, that — that I wouldn't possibly be able to explain to someone else how I constructed a sentence in English the way I construct a sentence in German. And this took me also — you know, I sense this excitement in your writing and in all the writing in your field about just how amazing it is that we learn language and inhabit it starting so young in lives.

Dr. Gleason: Well, it is — it is remarkable, but you know the real appreciation of what we're doing didn't come until basically this century. That is in the past people were interested in language and in how kids acquired language. You know, Charles Darwin wrote notebooks about one of his sons and he outlined how the kid acquired language in some sense but not in the sort of — what you might say componential way that we now understand.

Ms. Tippett: So — and so what I learned from you is that children start to acquire thousands of vocabulary words, um, and rules and systems by the time they are three or four and that children do this in every known society — whether it's literate or not — in every language.

Dr. Gleason: Absolutely, in fact literacy, written language, is a very late acquisition in terms of human evolution. You know, human beings have been speaking for hundreds of thousands of years, maybe a million years. Nobody really knows, because how are you going to reconstruct whether or not a particular group of people spoke. But it's part of our ancient, ancient heritage as humans. Spoken language is the basis that — that — from which such things as written language stem.

Ms. Tippett: So I want to talk about something that was a big contribution of yours, the "wug test."

Dr. Gleason: Oh, yes.

Ms. Tippett: You know, again in this — in this realm of what we take for granted and don't think hard enough about. You know the fact that …

Dr. Gleason: Right?

Ms. Tippett: … that children know grammatical forms that nobody has ever really tried to teach them that — that young children say things they've never heard anyone say before. And your …

Dr. Gleason: Right.

Ms. Tippett: … your test was kind of demonstrating that.

Dr. Gleason: It did, it did. The test showed that even very, very little kids, namely children of three, are able to make plurals of words they've never heard before and past tenses of verbs they've never heard before and a lot of other forms in the language, in a creative way they've never heard before. The classic example is the wug itself, right?

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Gleason: The wug is a little creature, looks like a little birdie — rule one is get their attention as they use to say.

Ms. Tippett: And you got to create a mythical creature, I mean, that's fun.

Dr. Gleason: I did get to create a mythical creature, who has been around for so long it would be embarrassing to tell you, but — but, you know, what I showed, let's give the example of — of the wug. I drew a little picture of little wug, and then there were two. So I say to kids, "This is a wug. Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two …" And even little bitty kids say, "Two wugs." Even little three-year-olds, four-year-olds, five-year-olds without a problem fill in that "zuh" sound.

(Sound bite of "wug test")

Dr. Gleason: We had to use nonsense words, because if we used regular words you could just say, "Well, they memorized it." You know say, "Here's a dog. Now there is another one. There are two." And kids say, "Two dogs." It only proves they've heard somebody say, "Two dogs."

Ms. Tippett: Right, right, right.

Dr. Gleason: But if they say, "Two wugs." And then the plural in English, as in the regular plural, never bring children "oxen," "brethren," and things like that.

Ms. Tippett: Right, right, right.

Dr. Gleason: The regular plural in English has three different forms, depending on the stem of the word that it's going to be added to. Now what we've found was that kids acquire these different forms of the plural in different order.

Ms. Tippett: So that it builds, that complexity builds.

Dr. Gleason: Well, it — well, it builds but what's remarkable about it, is that it builds in such a regular way. It isn't that kids learn language in bits and pieces and every kid does it a different way. Children have their own ways of learning. Children have their own styles; they have their own temperaments. But when it comes to the acquisition of language as a system, the children abstract the rules — if I can say it that way and I hesitate to say it that way — but they abstract the rules of the language in very much the same order.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Gleason: That is, children speaking English acquire English in very much the same order, whoever they are and wherever they are. That is a remarkable sort of universal.

(Sound bite of "wug test")

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, with psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason.

(Sound bite of "wug test")

Ms. Tippett: So this observation gave rise to linguistics' and psycholinguistics' own version of the nature verses nurture debate, you might say?

Dr. Gleason: Well, there is one out there and there has been an enduring one out there, but — and we talked about children having rules, this is why I was hesitant to talk about abstraction and things. See, we could describe what children do. We can say, "OK. Look. They make the plural, then they do this and they do that."

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Gleason: But then you can say, this is what they do, how do they do it or why do they do it? Those are different questions. On the one side, you've got people who believe that much of language is innate, it's hardwired into your head. When you are born, you have the principles of grammar in place, all those things. You have a language acquisition device.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have other good friends of mine who are of a much more behaviorist view, who say, "Well you have a learning principles, and parents spend a huge amount of time with children and they are basically helping to shape their language by reinforcing good attempts, by ignoring bad attempts, by modeling, by many different kinds of learning activities."

In the middle, you've got the interactionists' world, and that's where most of us are now. And the interactionist people are saying, "Look, you — you have a capacity," I mean, what I would say is, "Your brain is not formed when you're born." We think — or I think and a lot of people of my bent think that language develops through interaction with other people talking to you and that it is not through mere exposure to the language.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Dr. Gleason: In other words, you could believe, oh you got the principles, sort of what you said to begin with, if you've got the principles they're innate, you just have to hear the language, set the parameters, and away you go.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Gleason: Well, the thought experiment that I would propose for that is if you really think that, take your child and set her in front of the, I don't know, the Chukchi or the Korean cable news every morning. At the end of a year tell me …

Ms. Tippett: Will they start speaking Korean?

Dr. Gleason: Tell me how much Chukchi that child can speak.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Gleason: And you know what the answer is going to be. It's going to be none.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Gleason: Because children don't learn that way. That is not how you acquire language — oh, this is my belief all right.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Gleason: It's — it's not just a belief, it's from everything I have seen, you know, with — with what happens with children and parents. And there are — of course a fellow at MIT now — I suppose you have seen the work of Deb Roy at MIT. He is not a linguist. He's an engineer, who has collected 350,000 hours of data on his child growing up …

Ms. Tippett: Oh, this — this is the child project?

Dr. Gleason: It — yeah, it was a project at MIT, you can see he gave a TED lecture on it. And if listeners are interested, there's a wonderful TED lecture that you can see, describing how his little boy acquired individual words. And you can just see the child going from "wat," you know, to "water" along the way, but with this tremendous interaction with the people around him.

(Sound bite of Deb Roy's TED lecture)

Ms. Tippett: Find a link to Deb Roy's entire TED talk at Again, linguist Jean Berko Gleason.

Dr. Gleason: Language development is a cooperative event. It happens between children and the people around them, and I think you need not just the cognitive stuff to understand how to, you know, abstract rules but you also need to have emotional underpinnings.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Gleason: You have to care, you know, why — why are you talking, you know, you have to care about other people. And you know people who don't care, I mean, one of the problems with say kids who have problems like autism is that many of them are disconnected from other people and are thereby much impaired in communicating with other people. So …

Ms. Tippett: And you are saying that that lack of motivation is critical.

Dr. Gleason: I think the lack of affect — lack of attachment all of those things. Yeah, I think that language has many components. Look, language — how does language begin in kids? It doesn't begin with a child suddenly looking around and saying, "Wow, I'm going to make a subject, a verb and an object." In the first place, as you know, babies are listening to language before they are born.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Gleason: You know, in utero babies are listening. And we now have technologies that enable us to show that not only are they listening, that if they are hearing two languages, they are beginning to build a bilingual brain before they are born. And they are making preferences so that when they're — by the time they're born, babies prefer to listen to their own mother as against somebody else. So I think in the beginning, language is there so that we can say, "Mommy, I want you." And little kids are very good at that.

Ms. Tippett: You know it — this feels analogous and related to me to the more expansive understanding we are gaining of intelligence in general. Right? That it's not just a matter of information plugged in, I mean, even the field of artificial intelligence has changed, that robots are more interactive and that that's how knowledge — how important knowledge then is acquired and built.

Dr. Gleason: Well, I — I don't know robots, but I do know babies.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Dr. Gleason: So — so, well, you know, here's the thing, a lot of linguists who make theories about how children learn language don't have children of their own. You know, they — they haven't had that experience of seeing what goes on. I mean that was why it was, I think, such a shock to the folks at MIT when Deb Roy came up with this, the engineer.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, because he worked with his own child.

Dr. Gleason: He was — he was studying his own child, and it is technology that nobody else can do obviously, because he's got hundreds of cameras, mirrors — his whole house is wired. His whole house is — it's just incredible.

Ms. Tippett: All right. We'll wonder about those therapy bills in 20 years. (laugh) Um, so now …

Dr. Gleason: It's true.

Ms. Tippett: But I mean as you — as you mentioned and you wrote about, which is interesting that 50 years ago, um, people in linguistics or psycholinguistics often or longer than that study their own children — that Darwin studied his own children.

Dr. Gleason: Yes, yes.

Ms. Tippett: And I've seen you be very clear, you have three daughters that you did not study on your daughters. But …

Dr. Gleason: Well, I (laugh) I got a lot of good ideas from them.

Ms. Tippett: Well — well that's what I want to ask you, and also, I mean, how did the work you were doing, what you were learning influence the way you spoke with them and interacted with them?

Dr. Gleason: Well, you know, I think it's the other way around. I mean, we — I think we've already established that I'm a verbal kind of person, who can't resist playing with language and everything. I obviously noticed a lot of what they were doing, but I didn't set up experiments with them. But look, for instance, one of my children said something that has become — that people don't seem to know she said because I see people from all — all spectra of the linguistic world quoting it.

One of my kids came home from preschool one day and she said to me, "My teacher holded the baby rabbits and I patted them." And I said, "Oh, your teacher held the baby rabbits." And she said, "Yes." I said, "What did you say again?" And she said, "She holded the baby rabbits and we patted them." And then I said, "Well, did you say she held them tightly?" And she said to me, "No. She holded them loosely." So here I'm thinking, well, I keep saying "held" she keeps saying "holded," you know, anybody who thinks that children acquire language through imitation is making a mistake.

I wrote a paper called, "Do Children Imitate?" not based — just with that as a thought because then I went out and found lots of kids that I made a thing like the "wug test" except it was all irregulars and I gave the kids the answer. OK?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Gleason: So I said — I said, "Here's a goose, now there are two geese. What's this?" "A goose." "What are these?" "Two geeses — two gooses," whatever I mean, they — they didn't give me the …

Ms. Tippett: They used the rule that they …

Dr. Gleason: They over-regularized, basically …

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Dr. Gleason: … is what — is what we say. So the point of that paper was that kids will use their own system at the stage where they are. They're not imitating you. Not that you are not having an effect on them, but they're not learning language through pure imitation. They are building an internal system. But that — "My teacher holded the baby rabbits." — ended up as big headers in Psychology Today and in Harvard Magazine, all kinds of things. And I still hear people — I still hear people quoting us.

So the same child said — we had a conversation one time. I was talking about "giraffes." And she said, "What do giraffes eat?" And I said, "Well, they eat leaves mostly." And she said, "And what do they eat lessly?"

Ms. Tippett: Oh.

Dr. Gleason: You know, so you — you if you are a linguist you pick up on things like that.

Ms. Tippett: All right.

Dr. Gleason: And it gives you ideas of how you — of what's going on.

Ms. Tippett: But what — what you also see there is that they are really working right? I mean they're — they're putting things together.

Dr. Gleason: You see the creativity. You — you see that they are — actually have a systematic knowledge.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Dr. Gleason: That they have a systematic and that was — I think that was the big excitement that — that was, you know, getting back to what's good about the "wug test," aside from the fact that of course the wugs are so cute — I say that because I drew them myself. (laugh) I did. We were very poor in graduate school. Now, you see people, you know, take it to the department of graphics.

Ms. Tippett: You didn't have computer graphics, correct.

Dr. Gleason: We didn't have — we didn't have a department of graphics. We had like, you know, a pad of paper and a wug to make. I made them on 5 x 7 cards …

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Gleason: … which I bought at the Harvard Coop, you know?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Gleason: And used colored pencils. And that's the way we did it. But it worked. It worked perfectly well, but anyway. Well …

Ms. Tippett: And you know, just — getting at, um, the fact that — that language is about more than language, right? That it's about more than words or sentences constructed. You know, there's this phrase that's all through your writing, in your field, from Stanley Hall, who I guess is the father of developmental psychology, "The contents of children's minds …"

Dr. Gleason: Yes, "The contents of children's minds …"

Ms. Tippett: I mean just that phrase, "The contents of children's minds …"

Dr. Gleason: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: It's big.

Dr. Gleason: Yes. (laugh) It's bigger than we thought. I mean, that's — you — you were right earlier on when you said that we are coming to understand so much more about intelligence. We kind — we've — we understand so much more about babies. I mean, you know, there was a time when people thought that babies had no sensation.

Ms. Tippett: Right, right.

Dr. Gleason: You do remember that people use to do open-heart surgery on babies under — without anesthesia, under the impression that babies couldn't feel anything.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Gleason: They sort of thought they were like blind puppies when they were born, you know, just squirming masses. So, now as we get more sophisticated in our ways of investigating them, we know more and more about them. But I hate to say that this is true about every other creature too.

So those of us who still eat lobsters for instance, you know, now have got to worry about the social life of the lobster. You know so the — the whole question of sentience, the whole question of having meaningful lives, I think has, uh, has spread it turns out that an awful lot of creatures have complex and meaningful lives.

Ms. Tippett: Hmm. That's a big thought too. That's, uh, and you know …

Dr. Gleason: It is …

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Gleason: It is and it's one that — that slows us down a little bit …

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Dr. Gleason: You know when you realize, you know, you start — well, we're talking about language, but if you start thinking about the things that might not be so good in the country, a lot of it has to do in my book with not realizing the sentience of other creatures and thereby causing great badness out there.


Ms. Tippett: On our website, you can see that hard-working wug — and the other sweet hand-drawn mythical creatures that comprise Jean Berko Gleason's famous "wug test." Check them out, and have some fun with them — take the test with your children. That's at There you can also listen to my unedited conversation with Jean Berko Gleason, including her speculation about how different languages shape character and thinking; and her early work with Romany-speaking gypsies in her parents' native Hungary. She observed that their improbable survival and cohesiveness as a culture had to do with unusually strong linguistic socialization.

And this took us back to a show we did a few years ago about the Ojibwe people and a link they're making between the survival of their language and the survival of identity and culture. This sound comes from the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School, in Hayward, Wisconsin.

(Sound bite of class speaking Ojibwe)

Ms. Tippett: Find that complete show called "Language and Meaning — an Ojibwe Story" and much more, at

Coming up, Jean Berko Gleason's most recent fascination with the fact that young children almost universally acquire a huge animal vocabulary. What does this say about us as humans?

I'm Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.

I'm Krista Tippett. Today, On Being: "Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life." I'm with a living legend in the field of psycholinguistics, Jean Berko Gleason. She created something called the "wug test" as a young scientist, helping to illustrate the remarkable ordinary human capacity to learn language. She's continued to break new ground in exploring what this may teach us about adults as about the children we're raising. Jean Berko Gleason has called the exploration of language a frontier every bit as important and thrilling as outer space or the deep sea.

Ms. Tippett: I was thinking when I was getting ready to talk to you about a conversation I had with Martin Rees, a few months ago, who was a physicist in Britain. And, you know, he studies black holes and red dwarfs and stars and the solar system, but is, you know, categorically says, as those people will say, still the most complex phenomena in the universe by far are living beings. I mean anything that's alive.

Dr. Gleason: Well, it's true.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Gleason: It's — it's true and — and one of the things we've been doing in our recent research as a matter of fact is trying to look at the linguistic competence of our connection to other living beings. And …

Ms. Tippett: Tell me about that, because I just — I saw you mention that, but tell me what that research is about, what you're doing.

Dr. Gleason: Well, it's — it's the latest thing I've been doing, which began with a paper we wrote called "Alligators All Around." (laugh) I think somebody else wrote that first, uh, the acquisition of animal terms in English and Russian is a chapter we wrote in a book, but was based on a paper we gave at a conference. We — we were looking at children's early vocabulary, and here's the thing, when you look at young kids, you know, here I was telling you, "Oh, they all do it the same way" and, you know, and people can characterize early vocabulary. When you characterize early vocabulary, you say things like, "It's in the here and now," uh, "It's things of interest to the child," "It's things around the child." You know, two-year-olds have words. They have words like "mommy" and "daddy" and "baby" and "book," and also "tyrannosaurus rex." You know, I mean, for some reason they have a long — but nobody noticed this, right? This was not …

Ms. Tippett: That they — that they learn the names of animals is that …?

Dr. Gleason: Well, that they have huge animal vocabularies.

Ms. Tippett: Huh?

Dr. Gleason: So this is what we began to look at. And we began to look at — just the category of animals. And it really turns out that, well, for both English and Russian speaking kids — because that was the first set we did — we found little kids whose animal vocabulary has nothing to do with those rules we were talking about. It's not things around them. It's not simple to say. It's not common words. I mean we, uh, the Russian part — my colleague Elena Zaretsky finds little Russian kids playing (speaks Russian) little crocodiles. A 14-month-old talking to little — little play — not only that …

Ms. Tippett: That is interesting.

Dr. Gleason: Well, it's interesting when you begin to think that it isn't just the children, it is also we. We have this enormous connection to the living world that is reflected in our language, but in a way that we haven't been thinking about it. At least I haven't until recently and I don't know anything about it in the language literature. A lot of people are talking about children and animals, and the importance of animals, or how good it is to take a dog to the nursing home, things of that sort. But, uh, the point is, that we have an enormous connection to the rest of the living world and that we love the living world.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Gleason: We love animals and we love plants. And this is reflected in what we are doing with children. So the next thing we did — and this is a paper that I'm writing with my colleague Brenda Phillips and also some other people, we have huge — in our field now, we've become very high-tech. We have databanks that have transcripts, so I can, say, look at all the combinations of words where parents say, "Look at the …" and pull that out. Pull out every sentence like that and let's see what parents tell their children to look at. OK.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Gleason: So we did that recently, and we pulled out over 2,000 utterances from 61 different people. Of the top 30 words — I believe this is correct — that parents are calling kids attention to, 12 are animals. Animals are really right up there. We're — we're really, in fact, the example I gave, because I gave a little talk about this at the, uh, World Science Festival.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Dr. Gleason: I believe — I believe that is what it was called. Anomia hits. Um, it was at the World's Science Festival I — I showed a picture of that wonderful horse from the caves at Lascaux.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Dr. Gleason: You know, and I said, here's a picture that was drawn 17,500 years ago. It's pretty clear that an interest in animals has been with us for a long time. I mean somebody expended a huge amount of time drawing that beautiful horse on that cave wall. So, uh, so this interest in animals is with us and is — I think I said, at the World Science Festival, "When you take your child for a walk, you say look at the birdie, not look at the traffic cones."

Ms. Tippett: That's true.

Dr. Gleason: OK. You — you don't — you — it's extremely rare for parents to say look at the rock and — and I will bet you that our ancient ancestor when she finished this painting on the wall at Lascaux, 17,500 years ago, turned to her little cave kid and said, Look at the horsey."

(Sound bite of Chris/Delilah talking about animals)

Ms. Tippett: So how is the science — the new science of the brain changing your field? I don't know how involved you are with that, but, like, what can be studied and how it can be studied and …?

Dr. Gleason: Oh, it's incredible. It — what can be studied is I don't do that, all right. There are wonderful people who do. There are a number of people out on the West Coast, people in Vancouver, who are doing absolutely wonderful things in looking at — see what's very exciting is that they are beginning to pattern activation in the brain. And — and now they can do it on — noninvasively on tiny children. So you can tell where things are happening in the brain.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Gleason: You can tell either by measuring blood flow or by measuring changes in oxygen, but these are all external, you know, you don't — and you don't have to — people have been using functional MRI for sometime, but the problem with functional MRI if anybody has ever been in one of those machines it's like — it's like having — it's horrible.

Ms. Tippett: And you couldn't put a three-year-old in there very long.

Dr. Gleason: Exactly. No, you'd have to sedate them or something.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Gleason: You have to — they have to be unconscious. But now they have these little caps they can put on, where they are able to measure these changes either in — in, um, uh, in magnetic activity or in blood flow or in oxygen, something of that sort. And they are able to tell where things are happening in the brain.

Ms. Tippett: So is there any thing that this is — this is making apparent that, you know, that's really changing the equation or is it — how is it weighing in to this — these poles that we talked about, this discussion nativist or — or how interactively we learn language and what that means?

Dr. Gleason: Well, it is showing that some of the things we talked about earlier in this conversation have actual physiological correlates. So when I said you can — that babies who are hearing two language in utero are born with a bilingual brain, they actually have brain testing that shows that there is brain activation for, uh, for both languages and so that their brain — by the time they are born their brain is not the same as a monolingual kid's brain, your building a bilingual brain.

Ms. Tippett: That's really interesting.

Dr. Gleason: The other — the other thing is that with this complex technology, they are indeed able to show, as we said earlier, that earlier and earlier in a child's life, that they are able to make distinctions and they are hearing what's going on and their brain is really doing it. But look, that's — that's neurology, I mean, it is psychoneurology or it is linguistic neuropsychology, you give it a name, whatever you like. That will go on but that doesn't mean that people are going to stop looking at mothers talking to their children.

Ms. Tippett: No.

Dr. Gleason: We need every kind of research, you know. What science has to look for is what is called convergent validity. And that is many different kinds of research will ultimately come in on what is the truth as we know it or as best we can know it for our era. And there might be things that we don't know about right now.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Gleason: I mean, there may be — there may be things that we just don't know about or haven't thought about or given and paid any attention to, but — but so the brain science is wonderful, but isn't where every developmental psychologist is going to go and it is not doing away with basic research in human interaction.


Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, with a living legend and persistent pioneer of linguistics, Jean Berko Gleason.


Ms. Tippett: So linguistics was kind of more philosophical in its earlier generations and became more of science especially in your lifetime. I wonder though if here at the 21st century for whatever reason — it seems to me that in a lot of scientific fields there are kind of new philosophical questions emerging from the advanced science. I mean, I think we've — you and I have touched on that a little bit. I mean, there are new more sophisticated questions being asked about what intelligence is and what makes us human and how we learn.

Dr. Gleason: True, and you can ask those questions from all sides. Just — just let me back up for a moment though about linguistics, because linguistics has always had several threads. And one of them is philosophical. And for instance, I would say that the nativist linguists stem from a very philosophical tradition, where you can think about language for instance, uh, you don't even need a lot of data, because you assume that everybody is exactly the same so that if you think hard enough you'll understand how things happen, but they come from a very philosophical tradition.

A lot of other linguistics stems, that is modern linguistics — let's just talk about the 20th century. There were great linguists before that and we could get back to Sanskrit, because the people who wrote Sanskrit down were terrific linguists. But in the 20th century, the people who did descriptive language — linguistics — who sat down and said here's how the plural works, and here's how the past tense works, and here's what sentences look like, often had very pragmatic reasons and religious reasons for doing this. You know, linguistics has a huge religious history.

Ms. Tippett: Well, say some more about that. What …?

Dr. Gleason: All right. I will. My brother-in-law, Henry Allan Gleason Jr. was a linguist. He wrote a book called An Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics. It is the book that I read and used as a textbook as a student of linguistics. It's what I — when I made the "wug test," it was his descriptions of how language works that I relied on, not something that came out of the more philosophical group. Now, the religious linguists were missionaries and one of their purposes — and they still exist — if you — if you look up the group the Summer Institute of Linguistics, there are still people out there, who's aim in life is to go to distant parts of the world and find languages that have not been written down, find people who speak those languages, sit down, figure out how the language works, get it written down, give the people a writing system, so that they can give them the Bible.

Ms. Tippett: Hmm. OK.

Dr. Gleason: I mean, that is a major — linguistic missionaries were a major force in the 20th-century American linguistics. So if you look up names like, well like Henry Allan Gleason or Kenneth Pike, a number of them were missionaries. Religious people who had — you know, you go to India where you say, well there are a thousand languages and an awful lot of them have not been written down. Let's get to work. Let's bring the Bible to the world.

Ms. Tippett: I want to come back to something that you wrote. This was a review of a book that you wrote in 2003 and — and the title I think is evocative it — Language Acquisition: Is It Like Learning to Walk, or Learning to Dance? You wrote: "Possibly, we are asking the wrong questions. For instance, when we look to innateness, why do we not consider what might be innate in us as nurturing adults?"

Dr. Gleason: Yes, that is correct. And — and that's exactly what I was talking about with the animals, you see. Is that we — it's not just children who carry, possibly innate things. We come with a long history of being attached to other living creatures. So to assume that children would just be picking up "birdie" and "doggy" because that's the way they are misses the point that we are that way too. And that we are bringing doggies and birdies to them and talking about them. So that's what I mean is that it's — language acquisition is a joint activity. And if there are innate components, there are innate components in adults as well as in children. And some of them are our attention to the world and some of them are our love of other people. I mean, what are we — we are innately predisposed to pay attention to little children and to talk to them.

So let's not just assume that we are scientists sitting around watching babies unfold. We're unfolding with them. It's a cooperative event. That's, I think, what I would say and that's part of what I meant when I wrote, think about what is — what might be innate in all of us not just the babies.

Ms. Tippett: How do you think you would ponder the question or your sense of the question of what it means to be human? How do you think that's different because or informed by this life you've led studying language? What it means to be human?

Dr. Gleason: Well, I think ultimately — since we keep discovering, as we've said through this past hour or so — that other creatures have many of the characteristics that we've previously thought were only ours and we find this increasingly. I think that what is most human about us — being human isn't being kind, because you know, remember the child that fell in the gorilla moat and the gorilla picked it up tenderly and rescued it.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Gleason: I mean — I mean gorillas are kind. Uh, it isn't a lot of things. It isn't having technology because, you know, chimpanzees make sticks to catch their termites or whatever. I mean, they don't go to the moon with them, but I think that for me probably the biggest distinction — if we need to make a distinction, and by the way, I don't think we need to make an, you know, I don't think that humans are not animals. We are animals.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Gleason: We are very complex animals and we're very smart and very destructive, you know, we have some good and bad qualities. But I guess for me the most important difference I see is self-consciousness, is consciousness of our selves, the ability to reflect on ourselves and to comment on that.


Ms. Tippett: Jean Berko Gleason is professor emerita of psychology at Boston University.

(Sound bite of Chris/Lucy talking about young and old)

Ms. Tippett: Lucy's language skills are developing in the home of our producer and her dad, Chris. While we were producing this show, a few of us experimented with recording our kids — two-and-a-half-year old Delilah, five-year-old Lucy, and 13-year-old Sebastian. We had varying results:

(Sound bite of Sebastian Tippett)

Ms. Tippett: But we persevered. We listened for that amazing human capacity, as Jean Berko Gleason so evocatively put it, to be conscious and to comment on that.

(Sound bite of Sebastian Tippett)

Ms. Tippett: So maybe you'd like to try this with the children or grandchildren in your life. Or, you already have audio to share. We'd love to hear it, post it, and share with others at There, we've also posted a link to Deb Roy's TED talk, "The birth of a word." We leave you today with another snippet from that.

(Sound bite of Deb Roy TED lecture)


Ms. Tippett: To listen to this show again, download it, or find my unedited interview with Jean Berko Gleason, go to our website at And, as always, you can "like" us on Facebook at Or follow us on Twitter; our handle: @Beingtweets.


Ms. Tippett: This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.

Special thanks this week to Deb Roy, the staff at TED, and to Delilah and Lucy and Sebastian.

Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I'm Krista Tippett.


Ms. Tippett: Next time: "Holding Life Consciously." We hear how a physicist draws on the humanities and meditation to integrate the intellectual and sensory aspects of life. Arthur Zajonc sees contemplation as investigating life from the inside — and now it is teaching him about living with Parkinson's disease. Please join us.

This is APM, American Public Media.

Share Episode

Shortened URL


is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Boston University.