Teaching the child the concept of what it learns

April 21, 2015

Pär SegerdahlIt is natural to think that a child, who learns to speak, learns precisely that: simply to speak. And a child who learns addition learns precisely that: simply to add.

But is speaking “simply speaking” and is adding “simply adding”?

Imagine a very young child who is beginning to say what its parents recognize as the word “mummy.” The parents probably respond, enthusiastically:

  • “Oh, you said mummy!”

By repeating “mummy,” the parents naturally assume they support the child to say mummy again. Their focus is entirely on “mummy”: on the child’s saying of “mummy” and on their repetitions of “mummy.” By encouraging the child to say “mummy” again (and more clearly), they are teaching the child to speak.

No doubt their encouraging repetitions do support the child. However, the parents didn’t merely repeat “mummy.” They also said:

  • “Oh, you said mummy!”

From the very first words a child utters, parents respond not only by repeating what the child says, but also by speaking about speaking:

  • Say daddy!”
  • “Do you want to speak to mummy?”
  • “You said you wanted cookies”
  • “Which cookie did you mean?”
  • “What’s your name?”
  • “What you said isn’t true”
  • “Don’t use that word!”

Parents’ natural attitude is that they teach the child simply to speak. But, more spontaneously, without intending or noticing it, they initiate the child into the notions of speaking. One might call this neglected dimension of teaching: the reflexive dimension. When we teach the child X, we simultaneously initiate it into the reflexive notions of X: into the concept of what it learns.

This should apply also to learning addition, and I assume to just about anything we learn. There is an easily neglected initiation into a reflexive dimension of what is learned.

I suppose one reason why the reflexive dimension is neglected is that it is what enables talk about what the child learns. Reflexivity draws our attention away from itself, and thus from the fact that the child not simply learns what learns, but also the concept of what it learns.

If you want to read more about reflexive practices – how they are acquired, how they practically contribute to making language what it is (said to be); how they tend to be intellectually sublimated as theories of language – I want to recommend the writings of Talbot J. Taylor.

One article by Taylor that especially clearly demonstrates the early onset of reflexive language use in children  is:

Taylor’s work on reflexivity challenges me to reconsider the nature of philosophy. For philosophy seems to be concerned with the kind of notions we fail to notice we initiate children into, when we say, “You said mummy!”

Philosophy is “about” what we don’t notice we learn as children.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog


Being humans when we are animals

March 25, 2015

Pär SegerdahlMost people know that humans are animals, a primate species. Still, it is difficult to apply that knowledge directly to oneself: “I’m an animal”; “My parents are apes.”

– Can you say it without feeling embarrassed and slightly dizzy?

In a recent paper I explore this difficulty of “bringing home” an easily cited scientific fact:

Why does the scientific “fact” crumble when we apply it directly to ourselves?

I approach this difficulty philosophically. We cannot run ahead of ourselves, but I believe that’s what we attempt if we approach the difficulty theoretically. Say, by theorizing the contrast between humans and animals as an absolute presupposition of human language that science cannot displace.

Such a theory would be as easy to cite as the “fact” and wouldn’t touch our difficulty, the dizziness we feel.

Instead, I explore a personal experience. When I visited a laboratory for ape language research, an ape named Panbanisha told me to be QUIET and later called me a MONSTER. Being reprimanded by an ape made me dizzy about my humanness and about her animality.

How did the dizziness arise? After spending some time with the apes, the vertigo disappeared. How did it disappear?

That’s investigated in the paper by asking further questions, and by recollecting aspects of the meeting with Panbanisha to which those questions drew my attention. The paper offers a philosophical alternative to theory.

Trust your uncertainty and follow your questions!

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


An ape genius, or just an ordinary talking ape?

June 12, 2013

In 2001 I travelled to Atlanta, where Sue Savage-Rumbaugh then worked with the language-competent bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha. A question I travelled with concerned the linguistic tests that I had seen in a TV-documentary, Kanzi, an ape of genius.

In these tests, the ape responds to requests in spoken English, uttered by an experimenter who – to avoid cueing Kanzi through extra-linguistic assists like gestures and gazes – stands behind his back, or sits in an adjacent room speaking through a microphone, or covers her face with a welder’s mask. The aim of this experimental design is to distill Kanzi’s comprehension of vocabulary and syntax, the essence of language.

What I wondered was this: how did the experimenters get the ape into the test situation?

In the documentary, Kanzi appears miraculously as if he were nothing but a brilliant subject of scientific experimentation, an ape genius. Sitting on a chair wearing headphones, he picks up photos of grapes, keys, potatoes, people… He responds perfectly reliably, hearing the verbal requests, “Kanzi, give Sue the picture of grapes,” and so on.

How did Kanzi become that brilliant research subject? What happened before the camera was turned on? Does Kanzi spend his days on a chair wearing headphones, just waiting for an experimenter? Probably not, but then what is the relation between his ordinary life and the test situation? Is it irrelevant, since the conditioning anyhow took place in the same kind of scientific situation?

My first question to William M. Fields, who invited me to Atlanta, was: How do you get Kanzi into the experiment? The simplicity of his answer stunned me:

  • “We ask Kanzi if he wants to work.”

In contrast to his half-sister, Panbanisha, who typically refused to play the research subject role, Kanzi usually is willing to work. Then follows negotiations about the food he will have access to during work and which activities and meetings he’ll be granted later because he admits to work.

The filmed tests have a context, but the context isn’t more science. It is Kanzi’s life with other bonobos and with the speaking humans who co-reared young bonobos together with their bonobo mothers. Kanzi is an adult, but a point can be made by comparing him with children who participate in controlled psychological experiments. These children are not raised in a lab. They have a home. Only occasionally are they taken into the lab to participate in science. This often requires quite a bit of negotiation and instruction.

Child participation in psychological experimentation exhibits home/lab duality. The child’s language develops at home and is only tested in the lab. The science that charts the child’s linguistic development doesn’t reflect the more significant context outside of the lab, where the child becomes the speaking being that is being tested.

The child’s life at home is primal. Science plays the second fiddle and doesn’t recreate the vitality that made what is scientifically tested possible.

Animal science rarely exhibits home/lab duality. The animals are conditioned in the same type of controlled situations as those in which they are tested. If an animal picks up laminated photos of keys, it is because it was trained to pick up laminated photos of keys. It doesn’t have a life with doors, cabinets and keys, independently of its scientific disciplining. But Kanzi does.

Like a child whose parents decided to contribute to psychological science, Kanzi is not disciplined as a pure research subject. He became a speaking being at home, in ordinary ape-human ways of life (in an ape-human culture). Only occasionally is he talked and instructed into the lab, to participate in activities that don’t reflect the vibrant home situations in which he became who he is.

Kanzi is no aberrant ape genius. He is just an ordinary talking ape. Home/lab duality enabled him to become one.

(Want to read more? Here are some books.)

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


Panbanisha, 1986-2012

November 22, 2012

It saddens me to have to report that Panbanisha, the bonobo who understood more about humans than any other nonhuman – and more than most humans – died November 6, 2012, from respiratory illness.

Meeting her made it obvious to me that the world is more-than-human and that we have to rethink the inherited cosmology.

Pär Segerdahl


Project Nim: a tragedy that was interpreted as science?

October 12, 2012

Last week I wrote about the significance of negative results in science. This week I saw one of the saddest documentaries I’ve ever seen, featuring the tragic context of an often cited negative result in science.

The documentary, Project Nim (2011), was about the psychologist Herb Terrace’s attempt in the 1970:s to teach American sign language to a young chimpanzee, in a specially designed classroom at Columbia University in New York City. “Specially designed” here meant bare and small in order to avoid suggesting activities that are more exciting for a young ape than reproducing the teacher’s hand movements.

Terrace’s personal stance to the language project struck me as odd. Scientifically, he wanted to test the hypothesis that an ape can be taught to construct sentences. This would disprove Chomsky’s view that language is an innate and uniquely human trait. From a more “personal” point of view, what excited Terrace most was the prospect of experiencing a nonhuman animal communicate ape thoughts.

It would be like meeting an alien from outer space who miraculously communicated foreign thoughts to humankind. Treating young Nim as such an alien research subject strikes me opposed to the very idea of human language and communication.

The whole project was a mess, ill-planned and dysfunctional from the start. And yet there were happy moments where good relationships developed between Nim and responsible caretakers/teachers/surrogate parents outside the classroom.

In these more “distractive” real-life situations, where the point wasn’t about reproducing the teacher’s signs but about doing meaningful things together and communicating about them while doing them, it seemed Nim used signs to talk. The caretakers were optimistic, as was Terrace.

However, as Nim got bigger and stronger and approached adolescence, new problems appeared. He began to attack and bite his teachers, and Terrace feared being sued. These troublesome behaviors developed more rapidly than Nim’s signing abilities, and Terrace was worried.

One day, Terrace called his staff to a meeting and declared that the project was over. They had collected suffient data, and Nim could be sent back to the primate research center in Oklahoma where he was born.

The rest of Nim’s life was was awful, terrifying (although responsible caretakers did try to make a difference).

Simultaneously, Terrace started reporting the project; in a book as well as in an article published in Science. He sat down, watched videotaped interactions between Nim and his teachers, and came to the conclusion that Nim had not acquired the ability to use signs linguistically in genuine communication with humans. He was merely mirroring the teacher’s signs (or begging for things).

The negative result that Terrace published perhaps received more attention than any other scientifically published negative result. In spite of the fact that the project was dysfunctional from the start, Terrace’s publications were welcomed as presenting hard scientific evidence that apes cannot learn to communicate in language.

I’m not so sure what conclusions can be drawn from a research project that could just as well be described as a dysfunctional family history ending in tragedy. Moreover, as Peter Singer observed when he watched the documentary, Terrace could hardly end the project and send Nim away without reporting negative results.

Can we trust Terrace’s judgment when we watched the videotapes and decided that the ape he sent away did not speak with the fellow humans with whom he interacted?

Anyway, the book that Terrace wrote, Nim: a Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language (1979), is fascinating and well worth reading. It contains vivid descriptions of Nim’s life with humans; recollections that often seem to contradict the conclusions that Terrace finally reached.

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


Neither innate nor learned

July 11, 2012

A child begins to speak; to say that it is hungry, or does not want to sleep. Where was the child’s language hiding before it began to speak? Did the child invent it?

Certainly not, experts on language development would insist. A child cannot create language. Language exists before the child starts to speak. All that is happening during language development is that language is being transported to the child.

The big question is: transported from where? There seem to be only two alternatives:

  1. Language is innate. It is prepared in our neural structures. When the child hears its parents speak, these structures are stimulated and soon start supporting the child’s own speech.
  2. Language is learned. It exists in society. Children have social learning skills; through these skills, language is transported from the social environment to the young pupil, soon supporting the child’s own speech.

These are the alternatives, then. Language is either inside or outside the newborn. Language development is either a process of “externalization” or a process of “internalization” of language. There can be no third alternative.

I have written about the ape Kanzi, who was raised by a human mother. I’ve written about him both on The Ethics Blog and in the book, Kanzi’s Primal Language. This bonobo and his half-sister Panbanisha developed language in a manner that does not clearly correspond to any of these two alternatives.

Since it is hardly credible that human language is innate in apes, ape language researchers typically try to teach apes language. These attempts fail.

Kanzi’s human mother, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, avoided teaching Kanzi. Instead, she simply spoke to him, as parents do, in a shared Pan/Homo culture. As a result of this humanlike cultural rearing, he developed language as nativists believe only human children do: spontaneously, without the parent having to play the social role of a teacher.

The humble purpose of this blog post is to introduce the idea we have to think more carefully about human changeability than we have done so far. We tend to think that human changes are either lying dormant in our nature or are being taught to us by the society.

Kanzi entices us to think differently.

Spontaneous language development in a nonhuman suggests that being reared in culture is more than simply a matter of internalizing social norms. Being reared in culture means participating in the culture: a more creative and masterful role than that of a mere pupil.

I believe we are caught in an adult/child dichotomy. The creative role of the child becomes invisible because the dichotomy categorically portrays her as a novice, as a pupil, as a learner… as a vacuous not-yet-adult-human.

Perhaps, if we manage to liberate us from this dichotomy, we can see the possibility that language – together with much else in human life – is neither innate nor learned.

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


Apes become pregnant with language in culture

February 17, 2012

During the past century, a series of optimistic researchers set out to teach language to apes. This could have been no more than a queer expression of human naiveté… if it wasn’t for the fact that one of them succeeded.

Who succeeded? The one who avoided teaching the apes!

Why did the one who avoided teaching succeed?

I believe the answer lies dormant in an insightful objection to ape language research (ALR). The objection is that language is not like a strange property of human beings. It is not like a rare skill that we can loosen from our humanity and then empirically test if it can be transferred to nonhumans.

We must not confuse this insightful objection with its sophistic variant.

  1. The sophistic objection says that ALR is a contradiction in terms. The question whether “nonhumans” can have “language” cannot even be raised, because language is so profoundly entrenched in what we are as humans. The philosophical task with regard to ALR can only be this critical one: to illuminate the difference between all purported examples of “ape language” and our human language.
  2. The interesting objection says that ape language research cannot consist merely in teaching apes demarcated skills. The question is not whether apes can be taught language. The question is if we can help them become beings in whom language is as deeply entrenched as it is in us.

“Becoming someone” is more profound than “learning something.”

The secret behind success, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh discovered, was to initiate apes into a cultural environment with meaningful others who already were speakers (i.e., humans). And then wait and see. Wait and see if the apes would respond to this cultural environment as human children do… by spontaneously becoming speakers.

Every parent experiences that language isn’t taught to children but somehow grows within them, as if they were pregnant with language.

Sue had the same experience with Kanzi, Panbanisha and Nyota. They spontaneously developed comprehension of her spoken English, and they began to speak to her by (among other things) pointing to word symbols on a portable keyboard.

Culture transformed the apes’ way of being apes. Culture made them pregnant with language. Language began to “grow” in them.

Apes in the entertainment industry are specially trained to do apparently human things. These apes strike us as comical because they are not the kind of beings that can “carry” human skills.

In successful ALR the emphasis is not on training but on stimulating apes to become beings that genuinely “carry” human traits. Kanzi, Panbanisha and Nyota are not aping us. They have become sufficiently like us to be our co-inhabitants in language.

A short history of ape language research can be found on the Great Ape Trust website. Why training must be avoided in ALR is investigated in Kanzi’s Primal Language.

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


%d bloggers like this: