Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

Christopher, an autistic savant at learning language — pt. 4/4


We also invented a language that violated some rules of universal grammar. In some ways it’s not a possible human
language because we wanted to see what he would do with a the system that was impossible So we taught him a language that we called Epon that was perfectly normal for the first few months but then we
started to introduced possibilities that are excluded by linguistic theory and that don’t occur in any language in the
world. These were examples like the following: If you want to say something like, “The
girl loves me” you have it in that order: “The girl loves me.” But in the past tense, what you do in this language is put the object in front of the
subject, so “The girl loved me” will come out as “Me the girl loved.” And if you wanted to make it negative the you would put the verb at the beginning so,
“The girl doesn’t love me” would be “Loves the girl me.” And if you wanted “The girl didn’t love me” it would have to be something like “Me loved the girl.” This doesn’t happen in any known language but it’s very simple to learn. And we tried both Christopher and some controls with structures like
this. The controls did perfectly. Christopher
was hopeless. He made one hundred percent mistakes with all the
past tense sentences something like seventy percent mistakes with a negative sentences. All our controls got them one hundred-percent right without a
single mistake. And this is because (inaudible) That’s because he doesn’t have a central
system, a logical rational path that enables him to work out things that
work outside his language faculty. So, he’s a good example of a person learning a
language in exactly the way the Chomsky said they will. (inaudible) “What I like doing most is…” Reading, newspapers and books. “Reading newspapers and books.” Is that better than gardening? –No. –No? The thing I dislike doing most is what? Nothing. “Nothing.” “The person I like the most?” Um… my friends. Your friends. All of your friends? Yes. Good. Your favorite holiday is when you went where? What is this? Oh. When you went to Crete. Very good. That’s why. I see. Because of shoe shine. “Are you finished with Christopher?” No, we will never finish with Christopher. We would like to teach him sign language. We would like to teach him more aspects of more languages and we would also like to keep him as a friend because we’ve known him for a long time and he’s enriched our lives. …Spanish but you can speak Spanish and German. “What is that? What would that be?” The white swan? (foreign) (foreign) is “the white swan” In Russian it would be… I’ve forgotten what “white” ..

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