Podcast 040: What a Talking Ape Can Teach Humans

In This Episode: It’s easier for young children to learn basic sign language than to speak, and what a head start they get on learning! Proof of concept: a gorilla. It’s a fascinating episode of the Thinking Toolbox.

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Show Notes

  • An interesting article on the history and structure of American Sign Language.
  • Randy did find examples of ASL poetry: see video below.
  • If you haven’t seen it already, check out the fascinating Honorary Unsubscribe for Koko the gorilla.
  • Using an online ASL dictionary — which indeed is video — you can see the signs for all and for ball — and note the facial aspect, especially during the former sign.

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Randy: Welcome to Uncommon Sense, the Podcast companion to the ThisIsTrue.com newsletter with the mission to promote more thinking in the world. I’m Randy Cassingham.

Kit: I’m Kit Cassingham.

Randy: This week is a twist on the Thinking Toolbox, prompted by something in the news. And it happens to be something Kit and I both have experience with, coincidentally. And it’s a fantastic tool to help kids learn and communicate at a much earlier age than thought possible a generation or two ago. And that’s sign language, specifically in this case, American Sign Language, because yes, different countries have different sign languages.

Kit: They have a different word for everything!

Randy: If you will, different dialects, and creoles even of American Sign Language.

Kit: Uh huh. Our sign language teacher, for example would say that the word for chili is different in Santa Fe than other parts of New Mexico, and different from Boulder. That was interesting to her.

Randy: You think: well that makes it hard. Yes it does, but I talk about “soda pop,” and in the south they talk about “coke” — you know, like “orange coke” and “root beer coke.”

Kit: English to English. American English and British English. They have different words for things.

Randy: Put the trunk in the boot, yeah. Anyway, most people seem to think that sign language is some sort of gestural system for deaf people. But it’s far more complex than that. It is a true language, with its own syntax and grammar that are very different from English, and it’s a very useful tool for hearing people too. That’s what we’ll be exploring a bit here. I told Kit the subject of the episode this week, but didn’t tell her much more than that, so let’s start with how you happen to have a little training in ASL.

Kit: I volunteered at the National Sport Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colorado. And I chose the disability to be the deaf kids.

Randy: There was lots of different disabilities of people that were in that program.

Kit: Yes: brain injury, developmental disability, paraplegic, missing limb, leg or arm.

Randy: And apparently….

Kit: Blind and deaf.

Randy: That would probably have some interesting challenges.

Kit: I still laugh when the memory comes back to me, when the teacher and the kids say, “All right, we’re gonna do this.” The kid goes, “OK,” and then goes shooting down the mountain. The teacher’s going, “Stop! Come back!”

Randy: Yeah, that works great for a deaf kid.

Kit: What does work though is you slap your ski on the snow and the kid can feel that.

Randy: Even when he’s skiing away?

Kit: Evidently.

Randy: Wow.

Kit: My students never skied away from me. I didn’t have to practice.

Randy: Well that was because you’re so cute.

Kit: I was so terrifying. That’s how I got started with it. But then I wanted to learn more, because I wanted to be able to say more than, “Get your shoes, or your boots. Are you cold? Are you ready to eat? Do you want more? Do you wanna go skiing?” Those basic things. I wanted to have conversions with the people. And they weren’t always kids.

Randy: Right. Did the program teach you the basics, or…?

Kit: Yes. NSCD taught us the basics.

Randy: They had classes for you before you began?

Kit: Yes. Do you remember Hal?

Randy: Yes. Of course.

Kit: He helped teach the classes. He would throw in extra little things once in a while.

Randy: Hal was an interesting guy. So I met Kit about this time, after she had been doing this for what, two or three years probably?

Kit: I forget.

Randy: Even longer? I don’t know.

Kit: Five years maybe. Doesn’t matter.

Randy: Hal was another one of the volunteers there. He was a retired CIA agent.

Kit: And insurance agent.

Randy: I did not know that!

Kit: That was his cover job.

Randy: Oh, was it? OK. Hal spoke multiple languages like Mandarin, and Farsi and….

Kit: Russian.

Randy: And….

Kit: ASL, which I think was probably about his seventh language. He did the romance languages too. French, Spanish, Italian.

Randy: And English was in there somewhere.

Kit: Somewhere.

Randy: Yeah.

Kit: He probably even spoke British English knowing Hal.

Randy: So for me it was college. I went to journalism school to learn to research and write quickly, but I’ve always been interested in communications in general. So my minor in college was non-verbal communications, starting with what people call body language. And as part of that, I took a year of sign language and I was fascinated by it. It’s an amazing language that even has poetry that’s amazing to see, even if you can’t understand it.

Kit: Really!

Randy: Yeah, we’ve never talked about that before?

Kit: No!

Randy: I’ll see if I can find some ASL poetry online. There’s gotta be some videos.

Kit: And share the link.

Randy: And I’ll put the link on the Show Page, cause it’s … I was just mesmerized by it.

Kit: Well, I think, when I watch the interpreters on TV, during speeches and events and things, I feel like it’s ballet for the hands, when it’s a good interpreter. Now, maybe that’s not a good interpreter. I am mesmerized by that, and will fall out of a conversation to watch that.

Randy: I will add to that, that it’s not just hands. It’s facial expressions. It’s gestures, it’s….

Kit: And you mouth….

Randy: Arching the eyebrow, mouthing sometimes, yes, absolutely.

Kit: When you’re talking to a deaf person, you’re signing and speaking, so that….

Randy: Usually, if you’re a hearing person.

Kit: Right. Also, that’s part of their communication. They read your lips as well as your gestures.

Randy: Right. You can’t really depend on lipreading, because even the best lip readers, and not all deaf people are lip readers, can only get, I understand, 20 to 25 percent and so what they’re really doing is getting context and general ideas.

Kit: Since your hand gestures are up at your face, it makes sense that, when you speak, your face has more expression than when you don’t. So if I’m just gesturing with my hands and my eyebrows, it’s gonna be flatter than if I speak while I gesture and eyebrow and all that. Because I put more life into it.

Randy: We sit facing each other when we’re recording. I’m watching Kit’s face. She has her hands up by her face, while she’s talking about having her hands by her face. And she is raising her eyebrows and all that.

Kit: Well, you know I’m Italian.

Randy: Yeah.

Kit: Northern Italian. Way, way north: Ireland.

Randy: Ireland. Yeah.

Kit: I can’t talk without my hands.

Randy: Let’s talk about sign language for hearing children. It gives kids a head start in communicating. Babies can say things like, “dada and mama” at around six months. But it takes until they’re 18 to 24 months before they utter two- to four-word sentences. Studies show that babies start to understand basic sign language by about six months, kind of the same. But they can make signs to communicate their own needs by nine months. That’s a huge jump. And if they have any sort of speech difficulty, like so called late talkers, which are kids that don’t have a hearing problem, yet don’t talk until as late as 30 months, those kids will often use sign language if they know it. And if you add in developmental issues, like Down Syndrome or autism, then it’s a huge benefit.

Kit: Did you know that Morgan was taught sign language, so that she could communicate?

Randy: I did know that. That’s why I kind of left a gap there, so you could bring that in. So Morgan is our niece. She’s how old now?

Kit: 30, I think.

Randy: Wow. She’s quite profoundly Down Syndrome. She can speak. She can—

Kit: She’s a smart young lady.

Randy: Right….

Kit: She’ll always be dependent on her family. She’ll never live independently like some can.

Randy: And as a young child, she was not very verbal.

Kit: No, in fact, her brother had to start talking before she tried.

Randy: Her younger brother.

Kit: Her younger brother, who’s two years younger. They taught her the basics of, I want some milk. I want a cracker or cookie, or….

Randy: We’re talking sign language here.

Kit: Sign language yes. Taught her sign language. Music was her favorite thing. That was one of the first signs she learned. It’s not related to sign language, but she was given a tape recorder for Christmas when she was, I’ll say two. My brother could not get it to work. And she, in a very annoyed way, shoved him aside and had it working in seconds.

Randy: Yeah, she was Down Syndrome, but as you said, she’s also smart in her way.

Kit: Yeah. She will still sign and she just loves interacting with other Down’s kids.

Randy: And she can spot them a mile away.

Kit: Yeah, she’s got the radar.

Randy: Yeah. What got me on this topic of sign language this week, was the Honorary Unsubscribe. This week’s was an interesting one. A graduate student in developmental psychology at Stanford University was given a sickly one-year-old back in 1972 to care for. She decided to teach that baby American Sign Language, even though that baby was a gorilla.

Kit: A gorilla? Like a lowlands gorilla?

Randy: Well, very specifically a western lowland gorilla.

Kit: (Laughs) I thought it was eastern, but thank you for correcting.

Randy: Yeah, well you can tell by the accent. I’ll link to the Honorary Unsubscribe in the Show Notes. The bottom line is yes: a gorilla can learn to communicate fairly well with humans, not just that she’s hungry or thirsty, but that she wants to play: “chase me” and “tickle me” and amazingly that she wanted a cat for Christmas. And she named that cat. Your laughing cause you read … There’s something funny.

Kit: Well, it’s a cute name.

Randy: The cat’s name was All Ball.

Kit: Because Koko liked to rhyme her words.

Randy: Which is an interesting concept, because Koko was obviously not deaf. They spoke to her as well as signed to her. She was reported to understand about 2,000 English words in addition to signs. I’m guessing that she would know about rhyming.

Kit: She hears all the words and the sounds of all ball. Because I don’t know the signs for it.

Randy: You know, I wrote that Honorary Unsubscribe, but it didn’t occur to me at the time that there’s really no such thing as rhyming per se in sign language. You could have signs that kind of look similar if they mean completely different things, like say, all and ball.

Kit: I don’t know the signs for those.

Randy: I’ll look that up. That’s an interesting question. They may “rhyme” in sign language too. And I think if you’re interested in learning sign language, or especially teaching your kids, don’t get a book. So much better than a book is to look online, because you can get little videos of people making the sign. Because it has to do with motion, it’s not just something static. You can see the arched eyebrow, or whatever, and see how the motion supposed to happen. When Kit and I were learning sign language, we had the—

Kit: We took a class.

Randy: …our main resource was books, but the way we really learned is with a live teacher.

Kit: Who happened to be deaf.

Randy: Yeah, so after we got together, and we wanted to go a little deeper into sign language, we got a teacher. She was a deaf woman who was obviously very fluent. She had gone deaf as a child, but after she had gained speech, so she could still speak. She could read lips pretty darn well. And she was a great sign language teacher.

Kit: And do you remember, she got a cochlear implant towards the end of our classes.

Randy: I do remember.

Kit: The thing that interested me, which actually helped me with my dad when he started going… hard of hearing, I guess he didn’t start going deaf. Hearing is a learned skill. So she had to learn how to hear and it was exhausting.

Randy: Yeah, again. Yeah.

Kit: Yeah. It was exhausting to her. She got to hear her children’s voices for the first time and her husband’s voice for the first time. And her eyes still sparkled when she told us about it. When my dad didn’t wanna wear his hearing aid, I’d say, “You’ve got to, because you’re gonna forget how to hear.” And that will impact all kinds of things.

Randy: And so that when you do wanna hear, you can’t just pop in your hearing aids, and expect to pick up where you left off three months before.

Kit: Right.

Randy: So one thing I thought was interesting about the teacher is, because she basically could speak and she could read, she didn’t necessarily know how to pronounce things. She would say, do you want a “tor-TILL-a”….

Kit: Yes.

Randy: …instead of a tortilla. Well, that’s what it looks like! And using English grammar and rules. Yeah, you’d say “tor-TILL-a,” but….

Kit: Our next teacher who started going deaf at 12, but he was a musician, so he still played, even when he was deaf, and he would tune his guitar by putting his cheek on it, when he was tuning.

Randy: So he could feel the vibration into his cheekbone.

Kit: Yeah. Yeah. It was fun to study with him.

Randy: Back to Koko the gorilla. She wanted a cat for Christmas. And she named the cat, and then she demonstrated that she understood very complex ideas, like, “Sorry, but your cat was run over by a car.” And she wept when she was told that. What Koko couldn’t do was learn syntax and grammar. She understood and was able to use as many as 2,000 sign language signs. So yeah, teach sign language to a human child, and they’ll be able to communicate very quickly well before they’re able to speak coherently. And what a tool that is. What a way to give a child an amazing head start. I think it’s as important to their early development as reading to them.

Kit: Good point.

Randy: One site claims there’s a 12 point I.Q. benefit to teaching kids ASL. That site didn’t show their source so I take that with a big grain of salt. But even if that’s not the case, any parent of a two year old knows kids that age are still learning to control their emotions. It’s really hard for a toddler to talk when she’s crying, to tell you she’s hungry, or thirsty or whatever. What if they were able to use the sign for hungry or thirsty at nine months? Do you think that might really reduce the frustration they feel and might be a lot more pleasant to be around them? It’s got to reduce the number of tantrums.

Kit: For the parent and the children.

Randy: (Laughs) Absolutely!

Kit: I have several friends who have developmentally disabled … I’m thinking of one particular friend. They’ve developed … He’s developmentally disabled. He’s an adult, and has developed his own sign language. So it’s not ASL, but the whole family speak that language. He’s easier to deal with, and to interact with.

Randy: And that’s great, but he can’t communicate with people outside the family, and that would probably be an advantage.

Kit: Yes. It would be. That’s a good point. Maybe you develop your own language in own terms for things. But ASL does make it easier to communicate with others, just like speaking your native language makes it easier. Pete and Deb taught their kids based on that theory of it reduces the tantrums and I believe they found it to be true.

Randy: That was a couple we knew in Boulder.

Kit: Randy, recently we had, well it’s twice now we’ve had calls, EMS calls, or police calls where there were deaf people involved. Years ago you and I went up Dallas Divide to help a stranded motorist. There were three people in the car, and two of them were deaf.

Randy: I thought they were all deaf?

Kit: Maybe so; that’s a detail I’d forgotten. There was a medical call recently. It has become an issue within our service that maybe learning sign language would be helpful. Doesn’t happen very often, but….

Randy: Right, we actually had a class. You were out, because you were not feeling well, but I went to it. They brought in a certified sign language interpreter to just basically brief the medics on what deaf culture is about, and what they’re afraid of, and partly what they’re afraid of is being isolated, that you’re gonna do things to them without them understanding what it is you are doing and why, and to slow down. If they’re conscious and coherent and all that, which usually they are, is to take a moment to jot down a quick note saying, “I need to start and I.V. on you.”

Kit: Handwriting is a very good way of communicating.

Randy: You don’t have to necessarily learn sign language. I’m able to say, “Do you have pain? Where does it hurt?” Things like that, that I remember from my training. I’ve lost a lot of my vocabulary over the years.

Kit: When you don’t use it, you lose it.

Randy: Yep. You absolutely do.

Kit: Yeah.

Randy: I can do some basic stuff, and ask basic questions, as long as they’re slow, when they reply. And I can do that. The point of this Thinking Toolbox episode isn’t that you should teach your kids — what’s the percentage of listeners that have kids right now? It’s too late for us! But if you have grandkids, or whatever, it’s a great tool to support. Schools oughta do it. New parents oughta do it. They should be made aware at the very least, that this is an option.

Kit: Does communication aid thinking? When you learn to speak with your hands or your voice, does that also enable you to start playing with words and thoughts better?

Randy: I would think so, because if you can communicate basic concepts like, I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, much earlier, you’ve got to be developing those language centers in your brain.

Kit: Well, and then you can learn more of the, that’s not right, that’s bad, that’s good, I’m happy, that’s inappropriate. I mean, all those things that are part of thinking. Why is that inappropriate?

Randy: I can’t see that it wouldn’t help. So one other little topic before we close: it’s the end of June, which means we’re at a milestone: the end of June is the end of This is True’s fiscal year: it started on June 26, 1994, so here in 2018 that means we just finished up the 24th year of entertaining, yet thought-provoking, weekly stories.

Kit: Congratulations!

Randy: So that’s a big deal: it’s a lot longer than I’ve known you!

Kit: Only two years longer. No: four years longer. My math’s bad.

Randy: Heh! OK, you’re sure now?

Kit: I’m sure now.

Randy: Because I thought it was ’98.

Kit: That’s four years.

Randy: Yeah. OK. And last-last, a quick note that Kit and I will be traveling next week, and won’t be doing a podcast, so we’ll catch up with you later in July.

Meanwhile, if you have a story to tell about using sign language with a child, as a child, or even with a non-human primate, or just want to comment, you can do that on the Show Page, at thisistrue.com/podcast40.

And if you’re not already a subscriber to This is True’s text newsletter, get with it! Basic subscriptions have been free since 1994, and you can sign up at thisistrue.com.

Kit: And you can afford that!

Randy: Anybody can afford that. And if you’re online, you can get it. And if you’re listening to this, you’re probably online.

Kit: Yep!

Randy: So with that, I’m Randy Cassingham….

Kit: I’m Kit Cassingham.

Randy: And we’ll talk at you later.

[Easter Egg]

5 thoughts on “Podcast 040: What a Talking Ape Can Teach Humans

  1. I actually did this with my first-born. It was in the late 70s after I saw a documentary, when pregnant, about Washoe the chimpanzee. She was signing before 6 months and quite adept before she began speaking and reading parts of billboards along the highway by 2. Is it any wonder that she speaks 4 languages and is a writer by trade? I did the same, though to a lesser degree, with subsequent children. All of them are strong communicators.

    Awesome! A great example. -rc

  2. I found your podcast about sign language very interesting: it had never occurred to me that if babies and toddlers learn sign language they can communicate better long before they can talk. I don’t deny that sign language is an excellent tool, important for the deaf but also potentially useful for hearing people, but, as a blind person, I have had mixed feelings about sign language for years. The blind community has to learn to type or use the computer so that sighted people can read what the blind write, and this has made me stubbornly believe for years that deaf people should learn as many mainstream ways of communicating as they possibly can. I know this is not possible for some of them when it comes to speaking or lip-reading, but, for practical reasons, I think it would be hard for us blind people to learn sign language. Even if we learn to do the signs ourselves, anyone with no usable vision can never understand words addressed to them in sign language without a speaking interpreter.

    I have rarely conversed with deaf people, and when I did they could speak, but it seems to me that a totally blind person can’t easily converse with a totally deaf person, unless someone else is present, or unless they bring technology into it, using text messaging or something similar. Maybe I’m taking a negative or pessimistic view of the whole thing, and I apologise for that, but there are definitely times when different communication methods are not really compatible, and for me this is one of those.

    While this is obviously a thoughtful (and well thought out) comment, what I really like about it is how clearly it shows that blind people can fully participate online. Yes, there are a number of technologies that allow the blind to read web sites, navigate, and comment. Sorry to point out the obvious, Clare, but so often when I mention that I have a good number of blind readers (including on TRUE’s Community Forum), I get questions like “How’s that possible?” At least they’re asking the question, but I’m glad to (heh heh) open their eyes a little. -rc

  3. I have an ex GF who knew a limited amount of ASL including “inventing” her own sign for “yuck”. She was proud of that. 😉

    Nice, but there is already a sign for it: yucky. -rc

  4. Check out “Breaking Cat News” — which is a comic strip, but based on the creator’s actual cats. One of them (see “About Our Reporters” at breakingcatnews.com) is deaf. They’ve taught Lupin several signs. Obviously, he can’t make them himself, but it’s useful to be able to tell the cat “down!” or “stop that!” She will sometimes show The People making signs to Lupin in the comic strip. It’s sort of an Easter Egg for readers to notice.

    Pretty cool. ^-^ -rc

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