Review of Patricia Kuhl, “Is speech learning ‘gated’ by the social brain?” Developmental Science 10:1 (2007), pp.110-120.

“I consider the body of a man as being a sort of machine…” – Rene Descartes

In this article, Patricia Kuhl discusses the results of a set of experiments designed “to compare the efficacy of live social interaction as opposed to televised or audio-only presentation as vehicles for learning foreign-language material” for nine-month olds (112).  Kuhl found that infants at this age learn more from interaction with their mothers than from television or audio only.  Kuhl did not discuss any experimental designs in which televisions had fur and tits and had raised the child from birth.   Moreover, Kuhl did not discuss experimental designs in which infants had received, from birth, several hours a day of rigorous operant conditioning that primed them to “veg out” in front of televisions.  Regardless of such omissions, in summary, when it comes to language acquisition, Kuhl found that actual mothers are better mothers than televisions or audio devices.  Kuhl’s results reinforce what human mothers have suspected for hundreds of thousands of years—if a mother wants her infant to learn a language, her best strategy is to socially reinforce language skills in a natural and nurturing setting.

Kuhl’s article is a welcome, if partial, corrective to a sad state of academic affairs.  The HUMANS ARE MACHINES metaphor, in vogue since Descartes, has been refined in the past few decades into the deeply-entrenched and stratified metaphor HUMAN BRAINS ARE COMPUTERS.  The metaphorical entailments reach all the way down to the minutiae of brain function, in which language-users are said to “process” “information.”  (If information is information, why would it matter to an infant whether linguistic information comes from a TV screen or from their own actual mother who carried them for nine months, gave birth to them, then suckled, cuddled, nurtured, and loved them for nine more?)  All hail the Information Age.

If adult human brains are computers, then the development of those brains implies the metaphor that INFANT BRAINS ARE LITTLE COMPUTERS.  Kuhl begins her seminal article by announcing the theory she wishes to depose, what she calls “the computational conclusion”:  “Research in the last decade has provided some hints on how infants ‘crack the speech code’ – they possess powerful computational strategies that have been shown to advance early language learning” (110, emphasis mine).  Kuhl partially explodes the BABIES ARE COMPUTERS metaphor by promoting the hypothesis that normal social interaction is crucial to an infant’s language development.

It is understandable that with the advent of widespread personal computing and internet-usage in the early 1990’s in the Western first-world, the BRAINS ARE COMPUTERS metaphor might capture the popular imagination as a pop-culture meme and the academic imagination as a potentially fecund research tool.  The philosophical underpinnings of the psychological establishment’s methodologies were not immune to the spread of this powerful meme.  Kuhl’s genuflection to this philosophical style of analysis is nowhere more evident than in the section entitled “What constitutes a social agent?” She parses social agency into interactivity, contingency, reciprocity (turn-taking), and asks such questions as, “…would an inanimate entity, imbued with certain interactive features, induce infant perception of a social being?  And if so, could infants learn language from such a socially augmented entity?  …Would infants learn from an interactive TV presentation, one in which the adult tutor was shown on a television but actually performing live from another room so that contingent looking, smiling, and other reciprocal reactions could occur?  Could infants learn a new language from a socially interactive robot?” (115)

Kuhl discovered that social interaction is integral to language-learning in infants.  But isn’t social interaction, especially between a mother and her infant, such a bother?  Isn’t there another way?  What about robots?  Computers?  Televisions?  If mothers could simply outsource to robots the time they spent teaching language to their infants, they would be much more productive in the workplace and would have far more leisure time.  The same felt-imperative, of course, applies to teachers and professors from preschool through post-doctorate:  why waste time on face-to-face instruction if we can make learning virtual?  Let’s find a way to make machines educate us.  If only the world of The Matrix were here already, we could plug ourselves in…and, even better, we could plug in our infants.  Why do today’s Luddites persist in the preference of Mother to Matrix?

The answer may have to do more with Nim Chimpsky than Noam Chomsky.  In a section entitled “Neurobiological connections:  communicative learning in animals,” Kuhl notes that “young birds operantly conditioned to present conspecific song to themselves by pressing a key learn the songs they hear” (115).  While Kuhl fails to address primates in this section, it is well-known that some great apes raised in zoos from infancy are taught to comprehend human language on computer screens.  Because no experiments have yet been performed on human infants raised in zoos from infancy and taught human language on computer screens, evidence that might balance the following claims is scant.  However, it is clear that great apes raised in human environments from birth and taught American Sign-Language (ASL) are not only immersed in human communication, but also in human culture.  Of course, such apes lack an actual mother’s breast-feeding and care, and, being another species, could never integrate into a society of homo sapiens, try though they may.  In one famous instance, Lucy, a chimp raised by human caregivers from birth to 12 years, after being placed in a chimpanzee rehabilitation center, displayed sexual attraction only toward humans.  It is reported that Washoe, another chimp raised by humans from birth, when placed among chimps for the first time, had trouble adjusting to the idea that she was not human.  However, after integrating into her community of ASL-speaking chimps, Washoe spontaneously used ASL to communicate with others and even taught the language to her offspring.

Given the foregoing, it might be argued that caregivers nurture their young to be adaptable to a culture.  Inculturation (socialization, “Bildung”) is a Gestalt process—complex, intimate, generational and communal.  In humans, language acquisition is only one part of this process.  Human young adopt skills that help them adapt to their local environment.  For instance, Michael Merzenich points out that 40% of boys in San Paulo can bounce a soccer ball on their heads by age six.  Freud enlightened the West to the fact that adult human sexuality begins to form in infancy.  Feral children seem ill-adapted.  Children raised by TV often demonstrate undesirable behavioral and psychological traits.  In this context, Kuhl’s observation that “language learning relies on children’s appreciation of others’ communicative intentions, their sensitivity to joint visual attention, and their desire to imitate” (110) is welcome.

The notion that inculturation is a Gestalt process points to philosophies of language and cognition that offer stark alternatives to the “computational” model.  For instance, Michael Reddy reminds us that speech is not a mere “conduit” for information. Searle and Austin remind us that speech is a human action, and that each utterance may be fruitfully analyzed first and foremost within the realm of human interaction.  Crucially, Nietzsche reminds us that the desire to “exist socially” lies at the origin of language.  Many post-structuralists suggest that symbolic representational systems are ubiquitous—including Barthes who argues that “fashion statements” can be analyzed as signs in a system, and Lacan who contends that the unconscious is structured as a language.  Upshot?  Kudos to Kuhl:  Language acquisition, in any form, is an aspect of socialization.


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