Words Season 8, Episode 2 by Radiolab
If you somehow skipped Episode Words on Radiolab. Do find time in your busy schedule to listen to this interesting discussion. It is an amazing synthesis of life experiences of different people brought together to discuss what words mean and what it is to live without words. Although the creators seem to inform listeners (they present accurate information in a descriptive way), the podcast is not only informative, but enjoyable as well. It is difficult to tell what strikes most in this episode: how the stories are presented, or the stories themselves, or speakers’ ideas regarding the meaning of language, or the combination of all three. Anyway, the conversation is not tied to any language theories and is easy to follow and to understand.
The conversation starts with an incredible story of Susan Schaller who, like many of us, never thought of how it feels to be born deaf and live in a world without words, until she met 27-year-old man and started to teach him first words in his life. This moving story, which she later compiled in a book, describes her understanding of how life changes once we realize that “everything has a name”. But let us leave this story on its own. It’s goal here to introduce question, “What is it that happens in human beings when we get symbols and we start trading symbols?” and the answer given is “thinking”. This idea sets the tone to the rest of the discussion.
Words are important for thinking, namely, for sharing thinking. The blog speakers report on how they arrived at understanding that. During recovering period after a stroke, Neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor explains her perceptions of life without language as “peace”. As she began recognizing the words and names, she gradually started pulling them together into “stories”. She explains that language is a coded system for information exchange. For example, when the notion “I” labels with name “I”, “’I’ness” becomes connected to other names, or to who ‘I’ is now, who ‘I’ was. It does not feel to be “I” anymore. Not diminishing the role of language for communication, she argues that by using language we become devoid of experiencing it. This is more clear on the example of Ann Senghasa, a professor who spent 30 years understanding the language of 50 deaf children, who were not taught sign language. Put together, the children started creating a language from their own experience and eventually demonstrated more intelligence than older learners who were instructed in signs. Her central claim is that we build language to live in a community. James Shapiro, the Shakespeare Scholar, makes interesting contribution to the discussion. He enters the conversation explaining that Shakespeare created words for unnamed images and emotions that people had already experienced. He combined words different in meaning to label notions, which were easily understood by spectators and readers. Overall, the conversation explains that words are tools used to convey the concepts. Once we grasp them, we start connecting notions, then reflect on our understanding, and this what thinking is.
The idea of the role of language for communication and thinking, raised in the podcast, is not new. However, fueled by its examples of people using gestures, mimes and whole bodies to share experiences, for a second I imagined us, instead of using words or signs, acting out notions to communicate. What would our life be like? Would we be different? More creative? Less thoughtful may be? Of course, we can turn to the dawn of human evolution for the answer. Still… Use your imagination and share in comments on what you see.
P. S. The video is inspired by Words, radiolab