Aug 9, 2010



ROBERT KRULWICH: Okay, let us begin ...

SUSAN SCHALLER: Hello, hello.

ROBERT: ... with an unusual encounter which comes from this lady here.

SUSAN SCHALLER: I'm Susan Schaller, and where do you want me to start?

ROBERT: Her story starts—actually it starts kind of abruptly.

SUSAN SCHALLER: I was indeed riding a bicycle to high school, and a catering truck hit me and I was put in the hospital with a concussion. I was 17 years old. And the concussion was bad enough that it slowed my brain enough that I couldn't read. And so naturally, I couldn't go to school.

JAD ABUMRAD: Which sucked for her.

SUSAN SCHALLER: At 17 I was very much a nerd, and I was bored out of my mind.

ROBERT: So imagine Susan sitting there in the hospital. One day, one of her friends ...

SUSAN SCHALLER: A friend of mine who was just a little older and had graduated the semester before me suggested going to the nearby university and crashing classes.

ROBERT: Now wait a second why would you go—if your brain was working slowly why wouldn't you go swimming?

SUSAN SCHALLER: Well, I couldn't read but I could listen and I could hear. And the person was saying that "Oh, it's a lot better than high school."

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: And so one day she was at this college ...

ROBERT: ... just kind of wandering down a random hallway.

SUSAN SCHALLER: And I opened the first door on the left. That was the accident that changed my whole life, just picking that door.

ROBERT: At the front of the room there was this older guy. He was thin, he was bald and he was tracing shapes in the air with his hands.

SUSAN SCHALLER: It was as if there were pictures being painted in the air and then they immediately disappeared. Then another picture appeared. I was mesmerized.


SUSAN SCHALLER: The professor was signing.

ROBERT: This class was actually one of the first classes to teach sign at a regular hearing university ever.

SUSAN SCHALLER: I had also walked into history but didn't know it.

ROBERT: Fast forward five years, Susan now is fluent in sign. She moves to Los Angeles. It's the late 1970s.

SUSAN SCHALLER: And I was snatched and put into interpreter training programs because at that time they were very, very few interpreters. And I found myself in a classroom.

ROBERT: In a community college.

SUSAN SCHALLER: In something called a reading skills class.

ROBERT: So she walks into the class, sees kids all over the classroom making big excited gestures one to the other.

SUSAN SCHALLER: And at the door I saw this man holding himself.

ROBERT: Kind of off by himself.

SUSAN SCHALLER: Making his own straitjacket.

ROBERT: She went over to the instructor, and she pointed at the guy and she said, "Who—who's that guy over there?" And the instructor said, "Well, he was born deaf. His uncle, he has this kind of insistent uncle who brings him here every day. We don't know exactly what to do with him, though."


JAD: What did this guy look like?

SUSAN SCHALLER: He was a beautiful—well now I know, I don't know if I would have had that in my head at the time, but a beautiful looking Mayan. You know, high cheekbones and black hair, black eyes.

ROBERT: And something about his eyes caught her attention.

SUSAN SCHALLER: He was studying mouths. And I walked up to him and said, "Hello, my name is Susan."

JAD: And this is where things start to get a little weird. He looks at her, and instead of signing his name—whatever it was ...

SUSAN SCHALLER: He brings up his hands ...

JAD: And signs right back to her ...

SUSAN SCHALLER: "Hello, my name is Susan."

ROBERT: Susan, like, shakes her head and says, "No. I'm Susan."

JAD: And he responds, "No, no. I'm Susan."

ROBERT: Everything you said he tried to say?

SUSAN SCHALLER: Exactly. I call it visual echolalia. And I remember thinking ...

ROBERT: Why is he doing this?

JAD: I mean Susan, did he—did he look like he had some kind of disability or condition?

SUSAN SCHALLER: He was—he was intelligent. I wouldn't have been able to answer if you had asked me "How can you see intelligence?" But you can actually see intelligence in people's eyes.

ROBERT: He was just missing something.

SUSAN SCHALLER: To copy me meant that he didn't really know what I was doing.

ROBERT: And that's when it occurred to her ...

SUSAN SCHALLER: This man doesn't have language.

JAD: Wait, how old was this guy?

SUSAN SCHALLER: He was 27 years old.

JAD: And in all that time no one had taught him sign language or anything?

SUSAN SCHALLER: Well, he didn't know he was deaf. He was born deaf. He didn't know there was sound.

JAD: Really?

SUSAN SCHALLER: 27 years, no idea that there was sound. He could see the mouth moving. He could see people responding. He thought we figured all this stuff out visually. And he thought, "I must be stupid."

JAD: And so here's the question for our hour. This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: Words. What do words do for us?

ROBERT: Are they necessary?

JAD: Can you live without them?

ROBERT: Can you think without them?

JAD: Can you dream without them? Can you ...

ROBERT: That's enough.

JAD: Can you swim without them?

ROBERT: No, no, that's enough.

JAD: All right, back to the story.

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: So this man that Susan met, we don't actually know his real name, but when she wrote about him in her book, A Man Without Words, she called him Ildefonso.

ROBERT: There they are sitting in the classroom. She's right there with him.

JAD: And of course she's wondering ...

SUSAN SCHALLER: What have you been doing for 27 years? [laughs]

ROBERT: So she thinks, "Well, let me see if I can teach him some just basic sign language. In an interesting case she takes out a book and makes the sign "book."

SUSAN SCHALLER: But the sign for book looks like opening up a book. So he thought I was ordering him to open a book.

ROBERT: So he grabs the book and he opens it.

SUSAN SCHALLER: Because he thought I was asking him to do something. It was very difficult. If I gave him the sign for standing up, he thought I wanted him to stand up. And so I couldn't—I couldn't have a conversation with him. And it was the most frustrating thing I have ever done in my life.

JAD: Wait a second, how long did this go on for?

SUSAN SCHALLER: Well, weeks. It was weeks.

JAD: Wow!

SUSAN SCHALLER: Oftentimes when we said goodbye or just left—we couldn't really say goodbye—I really believed that we wouldn't see each other again. And I was oftentimes very surprised when he would be sitting there at the table. And I think sometimes he looked surprised that I showed up. [laughs]

ROBERT: But after a couple of weeks of him ...

SUSAN SCHALLER: Constantly miming, copying me.

ROBERT: ... she had an idea.

SUSAN SCHALLER: Perhaps it's just possible that if I died tomorrow I would have had only one really, really good thought in my life and this was it. I thought, "I'm going to ignore him." I taught an invisible student. I stopped talking to him and I stopped having eye contact. And I set up an empty chair.

JAD: And then she says she would hold up to this empty chair a picture of a cat.

SUSAN SCHALLER: And I was trying to explain to this invisible student that this creature, a cat—so I'd be miming a cat and petting a cat—and then I'd sign the sign for cat.

JAD: Then she would hop to the other seat, the invisible student's seat, and pretend to get it.

SUSAN SCHALLER: "Oh! Oh, I know!" you know, with my facial expression, "Oh, I get it!"

ROBERT: So you're playing all the parts. You're both the teacher and the invisible student.

SUSAN SCHALLER: That's right. That's right.

JAD: Wow!

SUSAN SCHALLER: Doing all these crazy things. And he just watched me.

JAD: He stopped copying her, which was good ...

SUSAN SCHALLER: But I'd do this over and over and over for days and days and days ...

ROBERT: And she says he just didn't get it.

SUSAN SCHALLER: He was—he looked bored a lot of times.

ROBERT: But one day in the middle of one of these endless pretend student exercises ...

SUSAN SCHALLER: Something happened.

ROBERT: Out of the corner of her eye, she sees him shift his body.

SUSAN SCHALLER: And he looked—it's interesting how his body was upright and he looked like something was about to happen. He looked around the room—this is a 27-year-old man, and he looks around the room as if he had just landed from Mars and it was the first time he ever saw anything. Something was about to happen.

JAD: His eyes grew wider, she says, and then wider. And then ...

SUSAN SCHALLER: He slaps his hands on the table. "Oh! Everything has a name!" And he looks at me in this demanding way and I sign "table." And he points to the door and I sign "door." And he points to the clock and he points to me, and I sign "Susan." And then he started crying. He just collapsed and he started crying. What is it that happens in human beings when we get symbols and we start trading symbols? It changes our thinking. It changes our ideas of—it is no longer the thing, a table that we eat on, but there's something about the symbol "table" that makes the table look different. Ildefonso was in love. He was in love. Like, everything has a name. And for the first couple weeks he had this list of names that kept growing and growing.





SUSAN SCHALLER: I kept copying words for him.





SUSAN SCHALLER: Gave him the sign for door.



SUSAN SCHALLER: Then I would ...


SUSAN SCHALLER: ... write D-O-O-R.




[ARCHIVE CLIP, CHILD: Strawberries.]

SUSAN SCHALLER: ... folded this paper.


SUSAN SCHALLER: As if it was ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CHILD: Treasure! [laughs]]

SUSAN SCHALLER: ... treasure. And he would pull it out everyday, and he would ...


SUSAN SCHALLER: ... carefully unfold it.


SUSAN SCHALLER: And he would add to it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CHILD: Orange juice.]






















[ARCHIVE CLIP, CHILD: Left of the blue wall.]







[ARCHIVE CLIP, CHILD: Hippopotamus.]

SUSAN SCHALLER: What is it that happens in human beings when we get symbols?


ROBERT: And that—you know, once you have begun to put words onto things you can look at a thing, say this symbolic sound, "table," and the person opposite you knows what you are talking about.

JAD: But she seems to be saying something deeper though that, like, when you get the word for table then suddenly the table, like this table right here [knocking on table], looks different. Like, that somehow the word changes the world in some fundamental way. Now I don't know if that's true about the table thing, but consider what happens when you put words together, okay? When you link them up.


JAD: So I want to tell you about this experiment.


JAD: That I learned about from a fellow I talk to sometimes.

JAD: Charles?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: I'm Charles Fernyhough. I'm a psychologist at Durham University in the UK.

ROBERT: Fernyhough.

JAD: And when I first read about this experiment in Charles's book ...

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Called A Thousand Days of Wonder.

JAD: It blew my mind out of my nose and onto the book.

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: It was a little messy.

ROBERT: I never want to be with you in a library.

JAD: [laughs] It takes a little journey to get to the mind-blowing part, but luckily—I'll let Charles explain it. The whole thing happens in a room.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Yeah, you're put into this room which is colored completely white. The walls are white. The ceiling's white. The floor's white.

ROBERT: So it's all white.

JAD: All white.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Everything's white. And you can tell where you are to the extent that some of the walls are longer than others. So on your left hand side ...

JAD: Are we in a rectangle, is what you're describing?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Yeah, it's a rectangular room.

JAD: Are you with me so far?

ROBERT: I'm with you so far.

JAD: Okay, just to give you a sense of the baseline conditions here: imagine you are a rat in this room. Okay?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: And somebody comes along and hides an object in one corner of the room.

JAD: What?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: It can be anything. I mean, for rats you could use food.

JAD: Like a biscuit or something?


JAD: You hide a biscuit in one of the four corners.


JAD: You see it.


JAD: But before you can get to it, they pick you up by your tail, spin you around a bunch of times ...

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: So you don't know where you are. You don't know which direction you are facing in. And then they say, "Right, now go find the biscuit."

JAD: So if you do this with a rat, what will happen is it will say "All right, let me go find the biscuit." And it will ...

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Go to one corner which looks right. But of course, the room also looks like that if you turn around through 180 degrees and face exactly the opposite direction.

JAD: Because it's a rectangle.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: So they get it right about 50 percent of the time.

ROBERT: Because corners of rectangles, two of them are identical.

JAD: Yeah.

ROBERT: All right, so should we get on with this? Because I'm well aware of rectangles.

JAD: I just needed to get that out of the way because the cool part is coming up now.

ROBERT: I hope so.

JAD: So what the experimenters did next is they took one of the four white walls and they turned it blue. So imagine this scenario: you're in this room, you've got these four white walls, or rather three white walls.

ROBERT: One of them is blue.

JAD: Right. Well, now you're not confused anymore. You can relate everything to the blue wall. You can be like, "Oh, the corner with the biscuit was left of the blue wall or right of the blue wall."

ROBERT: I like it to the left.

JAD: You now have the blue wall as a ...

ROBERT: Navigational clue.

JAD: Yes!

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: That makes sense. You know, we would all be able to do that. That's not going to be difficult for us.

ROBERT: All right. Have we got to the good part yet?

JAD: Yeah, it's coming. It's coming.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Turns out though ...

JAD: The rats, he says ...

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: They're still scoring 50-50.


CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: It's as if they can't take any notice of the blue wall.

JAD: Even with the blue wall they're only finding the biscuit 50 percent of the time!

ROBERT: Wait a second, can a rat see color?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Yeah, rats can do color.

JAD: They do color pretty well.


JAD: They also do left, right just fine.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: But what they can't do is connect those two bits of information together.

JAD: In other words, they can only—well, they can do left. That they can do. They can do blue. But they're both separate. They can't do left of blue.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: These different kinds of knowledge can't talk to each other.

ROBERT: How does anyone know that? I mean, what rats have been interviewed for this survey?

JAD: What? They infer this based on studying the rats.

ROBERT: So the rat doesn't have what? Doesn't have the neurons? Doesn't have the—what doesn't he have?

JAD: The rat can't do it, that's all they need to know. And I'm gonna make it weirder now—neither can some humans.

ELIZABETH SPELKE: I spent the first 10 or 15 years of my scientific life studying creatures who don't talk yet.

JAD: That's Elizabeth Spelke. She's a psychologist at Harvard. Quite famous for her work with ...

JAD: As you can hear ...

ELIZABETH SPELKE: Babies. And I was interested in their abilities in relation to the abilities of other animals.

LAB ASSISTANT: Come on, get up. We're gonna go to the monkey room.

JAD: So she began the baby development lab, which is filled with toys and on any given day five or six really tiny kids.

LULU MILLER: How old is she?

WOMAN: She's six months.

LULU: And who's this?

CHILD: I'm a big kid.

JAD: Toddlers too.

LULU: How old are you?

CHILD: Three and a half.

LULU: Three and a half. Big time.

JAD: So at a certain point, Elizabeth Spelke decided to build a version of the white room in this lab because she wondered: if rats have so much trouble connecting the idea of left to blue, what about ...


JAD: ... baby humans?

ELIZABETH SPELKE: ... a self-respecting 18-month-old human child will succeed in putting them together. But ...


ELIZABETH SPELKE: ... what we find is that children behave just like the rats.

JAD: Just like the rats.

ELIZABETH SPELKE: Just like the rats.

ROBERT: Really?

JAD: Just like the rats or almost just like the rats?

ELIZABETH SPELKE: Well, we don't test them with food, we don't test them with digging.

ROBERT: [laughs]

ELIZABETH SPELKE: So in superficial ways, superficial features of the studies are different.

JAD: But she says kids, like the rats, cannot connect the idea of left to the idea of blue. They just can't do it. And they can't do it at ...


JAD: They can't do it at ...


JAD: They can't do it at three.

CHILD: Four, five.

ELIZABETH SPELKE: And we find that those children start performing like adults around six years of age.

ROBERT: Now I'm interested.

JAD: Good.

ROBERT: Something happens at the ripe old age of six.

JAD: It is shockingly late, right?


JAD: Well, something happens at the age of six that suddenly allows the kid to connect concepts like left to concepts like blue. And the question is what? What happens?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Several people have suggested that one candidate for a process that's doing this is language.

ROBERT: What do you mean it's language? Kids are talking, certainly at three, four, five and six. They're talking like—like, you know, too much!

ELIZABETH SPELKE: But they're not—what they haven't yet started to use is spatial language, and particularly the kinds of spatial language that adults would use in this situation to describe what they're doing.

JAD: And somewhere around the age of six they start to use phrases like ...

CHILD: Left of the blue wall.

JAD: And those aren't just words that come out of the child's mouth. Liz thinks that inside the child's brain, what that phrase does ...

ELIZABETH SPELKE: Is link these concepts together.

JAD: Clink! And at that moment ...

CHILD: Left of the blue wall!

JAD: ... the child leaves the rats behind.

ROBERT: I can't—are you—she doesn't think that kids have that ...

JAD: Well, let me put it to you a different way.


JAD: And this is my best understanding of what she thinks. Her basic idea is that a child's brain begins as a series of islands. And on one island way over here in the brain you've got, say, color. We can call that the blue island.

ROBERT: Blue blue, blue ...

JAD: That's the part of you that perceives the color blue. Way on the other side of the brain, you've got the part of you that perceives spatial stuff like left.

ROBERT: Left, left, left ...

JAD: Maybe a third, objects like wall.

ROBERT: Wall, wall, wall ...

JAD: These things are there from the beginning, but they're separate. Then you get the words "left," "blue," "wall." And then the child, for the first time, comes upon the phrase ...

ROBERT: Left of the blue wall.

JAD: And in that moment, all the islands ...

CHILD: Kaboom!

JAD: ... come together.

CHILD: [laughs]

JAD: It is literally the phrase itself, she says, that creates that internal connection.

ELIZABETH SPELKE: Everybody's always talked about how language is this incredible tool for communication that allows us to exchange information with other people so much more richly and effectively than other animals can. But language also seems to me to serve as a mechanism of communication between different systems within a single mind.

JAD: There you go.

ROBERT: Wouldn't it be just as possible—just listen to me here.

JAD: Mm-hmm?

ROBERT: That the kid's brain is developing some new connections and what follows then, follows from the changes in the brain.

JAD: So the words are like an after—after ...

ROBERT: Yeah. After.

JAD: After fact?

ROBERT: After effect.

JAD: Well that's—no. No.

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: The experimenters actually accounted for that.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: What the experimenters did next is that they thought okay, if language is adding this extra element, let's try and knock it out.

JAD: How would you do that? Would you, like, shoot something into their brain that kills the language part or something?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: There's a much simpler way of doing it and a much more humane thing that you can do.

ELIZABETH SPELKE: What we did is put adults in the room.

JAD: And then, she says, she gave them an iPod.

ELIZABETH SPELKE: They've got headphones on.

JAD: Playing through those headphones is someone talking.


JAD: And their job while they're in the room is to just repeat what the person is saying.

ELIZABETH SPELKE: Continuously listening to speech and repeating it the whole time they were in there.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: It's actually a really hard thing to do. If you've ever tried shadowing somebody speaking. I mean if you tried ...

JAD: Can we try it? You go and I'll—and I'll shadow you.


JAD: Okay Jad.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: I'm going to ...

JAD: I'm going to ...

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: ... try and start speaking now.

JAD: ... start speaking now.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: And I want you to say it ...

JAD: And I want you to say it ...

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: ... right back to me exactly as I say it.

JAD: ... exactly as I say it.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: And without any ...

JAD: Oh my God, that's starting to hurt my head. That's really hard, actually.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: It is hard, yeah. And what that does is it knocks out your capacity to use language for yourself.

ELIZABETH SPELKE: Basically battering the words out of the adult's head.

ROBERT: Why are they doing this again?

JAD: Well, they wanted to see, like, if you blast the words out of somebody's head ...

ELIZABETH SPELKE: What would happen?

JAD: Can they find the biscuit? Will they be able to form that simple thought, "left of the blue wall," or will they be like the rats who can't?


ELIZABETH SPELKE: And we actually got very dramatic results.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: They went right back to being like the rats.



JAD: But Charles, what I'm wondering is if language allows you to construct a thought that is so basic as, "The biscuit is left of the blue wall," what is thought without language?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Well, I don't think it's very much at all.

JAD: What do you mean?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: I'm going to put it a different way, and this involves making quite a controversial statement. I don't think very young children do think.

JAD: Like, think period? Was there a period at the end of that sentence?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: I don't think they think in the way I want to call thinking, which is a bit of cheat, but let me say what I mean by thinking.

JAD: Okay.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: If you reflect on your own experience, if you think about what's going on inside your head as you're just walking to work or sitting on a subway train, much of what's going on in your head at that point is actually verbal. I'm going to suggest that the central thread of all that is actually language, it's a stream of inner speech. That's what most of us think of as thinking.

ELIZABETH SPELKE: Well, on the other hand, what I'm most aware of when I'm reflecting is the stuff that I can't put into words. I think that he's exaggerating the role of language here. Yes ...

JAD: This all really hinges on how you would define thinking. And Liz would say take a musician. Like, I'll give you my example: Bill Evans. Here is a form of thought that carries you through a definite sequence of phrases, feelings, emotions, changes. And there are no words!

ELIZABETH SPELKE: But there's something that we get access to when we gain a full natural language that we can use not only to communicate with other people but with ourselves.

JAD: Test. Testing. Test. Test. Test. Test.

ELIZABETH SPELKE: Language is fundamentally a combinatorial system.

ROBERT: As we head up the steps. What is this? This is a ...

JAD: We're going to Columbia University.

ROBERT: Columbia University.

JAD: See, we'd gotten interested in the last thing that Liz Spelke said about language being a combinatorial thing.


JAD: Right. And that led us to Columbia. Here's the deal ...

ROBERT: You have words now. You have words in combination now. Now you can play with the combinations.

JAD: And that, as you'll hear ...

JAMES SHAPIRO: It's just us three then, right?

ROBERT: It's just us three.


JAD: ... opens up a kind of infinity.

JAMES SHAPIRO: Head to foot Now is he total gules, horridly tricked with blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, Baked and impasted with the parching streets, That lend a tyrannous and damnèd light To their vile murders.

ROBERT: This is Shakespeare.

JAMES SHAPIRO: When I sat in middle school and they gave us Shakespeare ...

JAMES SHAPIRO: ... roasted in wrath and fire, And thus o'er-sized with coagulate gore.

JAMES SHAPIRO: I was completely confused, and I felt stupid.

JAD: Can you just introduce yourself?

ROBERT: This is ...

JAMES SHAPIRO: James Shapiro. I'm a ...

ROBERT: He is a Shakespeare scholar, obviously.

JAMES SHAPIRO: At Columbia University, where I've taught for 25 years.

ROBERT: And one reason he says that Shakespeare can be confusing is that often Shakespeare behaved not so much like a writer but more like a ...

JAMES SHAPIRO: Like a chemist combining elements. He's taking words and he's shoving them together, smashing them together if you will.

ROBERT: And ...

JAMES SHAPIRO: Combining ...

ROBERT: ... sometimes these word experiments, they didn't go so well.

JAMES SHAPIRO: There's "The prince's orgulous." Orgulous has not stuck.


JAD: [laughs] What does it mean?

JAMES SHAPIRO: You got me. I mean I should know. I taught ...

ROBERT: But look what he did just by adding a little prefix, "un."

JAMES SHAPIRO: There's so many words that we're now familiar with—unnerved. You know, we all know what that means, but nobody had heard "unnerved," "unaware," "uncomfortable."

ROBERT: He made up uncomfortable?

JAMES SHAPIRO: He was the first to use that word ...

ROBERT: On a stage.

JAMES SHAPIRO: Right. "Unearthly," "unhand," "undress," "uneducated," "ungoverned," "unmitigated," "unwillingness," "unpublished," something that's near and dear to me.

ROBERT: Unpublished.

JAMES SHAPIRO: "Unsolicited," "unswayed," "unclogged," "unappeased," "unchanging," "unreal."

ROBERT: He made up unreal?

JAMES SHAPIRO: He was the first to use it in print or on stage.

JAD: Would an audience at the time have understood what the "un" prefix meant? Not real?

JAMES SHAPIRO: I think it takes you a split second to kind of put that "un" on the real.

ROBERT: But then suddenly you got this new concept that there's something real but not.

JAMES SHAPIRO: He's taking words that ordinarily are not stuck together. Things like madcap, ladybird. Shoving them together—eyedrops—to achieve a kind of atomic power. Eyesore, eyeball.

JAD: He did eyeball?


ROBERT: It's hard to understand how someone could think that up. It seems like it's always been there.

JAMES SHAPIRO: If you ask me what his greatest gift is, he's putting them together into phrases that have stuck in our heads. So truth will out.

ROBERT: Truth will out.

JAMES SHAPIRO: What's done is done. I could go on and on.

JAD: Go on and on!

ROBERT: He wants you to go on and on.

JAMES SHAPIRO: Crack of doom. My favorite: dead as a doornail. A dish fit for the gods. A dog will have his day. Fainthearted, fool's paradise, forever and a day, foregone conclusion, the game is afoot, the game is up. Greek to me, in a pickle, in my heart of hearts, in my mind's eye, kill with kindness. Believe it or not, knock, knock, who's there?

JAD & ROBERT: Oh! [laughs]

JAMES SHAPIRO: Laugh yourself into stitches, love is blind, what the Dickens, all's well that ends well. Something wicked this way comes. And a sorry sight.


ROBERT: That's a champion.

JAD: That's pretty fantastic.

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAMES SHAPIRO: How did he create phrases that stick in the mind, that make it seem as if they always existed?

ROBERT: Yeah, how? You're taking out a book.

JAMES SHAPIRO: I'm thinking of a passage here.

JAD: That is maybe the biggest book I have ever seen.

ROBERT: [laughs]


JAD: It was at least 3,000 pages.

JAMES SHAPIRO: Shakespeare doesn't write a lot about process. But there are one or two places where he does. In a poem called "Lucrece" in which a woman is raped. "Lucrece's Rape." And she has to write a letter to her husband explaining what happened to her. And she's struggling to find the words in which to do this. And finally she picks up the pen and it goes: "She prepares to write. First hovering o'er the paper with her quill; Conceit and grief and eager combat fight; What wit sets down is blotted straight with will; This too curious good, this blunt and ill. Much like a press of people at a door Throng her inventions, which shall go before." I'll read that couplet again: Much like a press of people at a door Throng her inventions, which shall go before." If you want to extrapolate from this something that Shakespeare might have himself experienced, you have a situation which all these ideas are pressing. It's like a throng of them. Who's getting through that doorway first?

JAD: It's a little bit maybe like that experience you might have at a nightmare New York club, where you've got like thousands of people in a tiny space and everyone's trying to push their way out, and they're like, "God, let me through the door! Get out of my way!" And it's just like this ...

JAMES SHAPIRO: Throng of images, of sounds, conceits, thoughts, ideas. And they are providing the pressure that's needed to produce words.

JAD: You know what?


JAD: This makes sense to me, this interpretation. And not just for Shakespeare, maybe for anybody. Certainly the guy we met at the beginning, Ildefonso.

ROBERT: Who just learned words for the first time.

JAD: Yeah. I mean, as you move through the world, if you're sensitive at all and you're observant, you're gonna get filled up with all of these things which you have to express but can't until you get those words. Then—boom! The door opens.

ROBERT: And thanks to James Shapiro, professor at Columbia University, whose newest book is Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

JAD: Also, thanks to our kids: Louisa Krasnow, Stella Astory and Isaiah Harrison, and also thanks to the moms that brought them in: Therese Tripoli, Kerry Donahue and Patricia Starreck.

[SUSAN SCHALLER: Hello, this is Susan Schaller. Radiolab is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]

[CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Charles Fernyhough. Radiolab is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR.]

JAD: Hey. I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. This hour ...

ROBERT: I'm talking ...

JAD: Blah blah blah.

ROBERT: Words.

JAD: The power of words.

ROBERT: So once words enter your head, once they tickle in there and we just explained how that happens ...

JAD: Sort of.

ROBERT: ... then they—how do you know they're always there?

JAD: What if they're not? What would happen if that—that throng that is in your head ...

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: ... what if all of that stuff, whatever's in your head, suddenly went—poof! Got yanked right out of your head?


JAD: What would be left?

ROBERT: Well, this got us thinking about a very famous talk at one of the TED conferences.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jill Bolte Taylor: I grew up to study the brain because ...]

ROBERT: A talk given by a neuroanatomist named Jill Bolte. Is it Bolte or Bolt?

JAD: Bolte.

ROBERT: Bolte Taylor.

JAD: Yeah.

ROBERT: And all you really need to know is that one morning in December of 1996, Doctor Taylor woke up and she had—she had a headache.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jill Bolte Taylor: I woke up to a pounding pain behind my left eye. And it was the kind of pain, caustic pain that you get when you bite into ice cream. And it just gripped me and then it released me. And it was very unusual for me to ever experience any kind of—of pain so I thought okay, I'll just start my normal routine. So I got up and I jumped onto my cardio-glider, which is a full-body, full-exercise machine. And I'm jamming away on this thing, and I'm realizing that my hands look like primitive claws grasping onto the bar. And I thought, "Whoa, I'm a weird looking thing!" So I get off the machine, and I'm standing in my bathroom getting ready to step into the shower, and then I lost my balance and I'm propped up against the—the wall. And I'm asking myself what is wrong with me? What is going on? And in that moment my right arm went totally paralyzed by my side.]

ROBERT: In fact, a blood vessel in the left hemisphere of Jill's brain had popped. And that part of her brain was starting to shut down.

JAD: And it was the shut down that really caught our attention.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: In that moment, my brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button. So here I am in this space, and my job and any stress related to my—my job it was gone. And I felt lighter in my body. And then all of a sudden my left hemisphere comes back online and it says to me, "Hey! We're having a stroke, we gotta get some help!" And I'm going, "Aah! I got a problem! I got a problem!" So it's like okay, okay. I got a problem. But then I immediately drifted right back out. And I affectionately refer to this space as "La La Land."]

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: So I'm just watching my brain become more and more incapable of functioning.

ROBERT: That is Jill Bolte Taylor herself.


JAD: We actually got her into a studio.


JAD: Hello.

JAD: Because we wanted to ask some questions about that moment when her inner voices went away.

ROBERT: So let's talk about brain chatter for a moment.


ROBERT: In the story that we've told so far, you're still asking yourself questions.


ROBERT: Now did that stop?

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: It—on the morning of the stroke I was doing this wafting dance between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere. So language would come back on. But once I got to the emergency room and I passed out, when I woke later that afternoon, I had absolutely no language.

JAD: Did you know your name?


JAD: Did you know your address?


ROBERT: Did you know about your summer from 1983?


JAD: You know, like, my mom is so and so?

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: I didn't know any of that.

JAD: None of it?

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: I didn't know any of that.

ROBERT: Just imagine: she's lying in her bed. Her head is shaved, wrapped in bandages. She's had hours of brain surgery, she's got tubes coming out of her mouth, out of her nose. She's lost her career, she's lost her language.

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: And I lost all my memories.

ROBERT: And yet, she says, sitting there in that suddenly wordless space ...

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: I had found a peace inside of myself that I had not known before. I had pure silence inside of my mind. Pure silence.

JAD: Pure silence?

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: Pure silence.

JAD: What was ...

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: You know, not that little voice that—that, you know, you wake up in the morning and the first thing your brain says is, "Oh, man. The sun is shining." Well, imagine that you don't hear that little voice that says, "Man, the sun is shining," you just experience the sun and the shining.

ROBERT: Is this the absence of reflection of any kind?
JAD: Yeah.

ROBERT: Is it just sensual intake and—period?

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: That is exactly what it was. It was—it was all of the present moment.

JAD: Did you have thoughts?


ROBERT: [laughs]

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: I just had joy. I had—I had this magnificent experience of I'm this collection of these beautiful cells. I'm organic. I'm this—this organic entity.

ROBERT: Did you have a Deadhead period by any chance?

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: [laughs] You know, I missed that by a few years, but I get a lot of that.

ROBERT: And the other thing that she told us is that lying in that bed without words, she says she felt connected to things—to everything—in a way that she never had before.

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: Oh, yeah. I lost all definition of myself in relationship to everything in the external world.

JAD: You mean like you couldn't figure out where you ended?


ROBERT: How much of that was—was about language? A little part? A lot? I mean ...

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: Well, I would say it was huge. Language is an ongoing information processing. It's the constant reminder. I am. This is my name, this is all the data related to me. These are my likes and my dislikes, these are my beliefs. I am an individual, I'm a single, I'm a solid, I'm separate from you. This is my name ...

JAD: Now as fruity as this may sound to pin all this on language, we have run into this idea before a couple seasons ago. Paul Broks, remember him?

ROBERT: Yeah, sure.

JAD: Neuropsychologist.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Paul Broks: Well, if you want to ask me about myself ...]

JAD: He told me that there is a theory out there—which he believes, actually—that all a person is in the end, like all the personhood of a person, the I or the you of a person, all that is in the end is a ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Paul Broks: Story.]

JAD: A story you tell yourself.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Paul Broks: What we normally think of when we think about ourselves is really a story. It's the story of what's happened to that body over time.]

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: I did not have that portion of my language center that tells a story ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jill Bolte Taylor: Curious little Jill. Me, Jill Bolte Taylor climbing the Harvard ladder.]

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: ... through language.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jill Bolte Taylor: Loves dissection, cutting up things.]

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: That language was gone. I got to essentially become an infant again.

ROBERT: And this is the problem here.

JAD: What do you mean?

ROBERT: When you drop out of the I-ness of yourself or the story of yourself, then you are left, she says at peace. I could argue that that's just stranded, that's stranded in the sunshine, with the wind, in the now.

JAD: But I mean, it's not like she stayed there.

ROBERT: Well, that's true.

JAD: I mean, we wouldn't be talking to her if she had. And as she started to recover, she ran into something kinda interesting, which sounded to me sort of like what maybe the rats and the babies go through in the white room. She would have these disparate thoughts and then stall out. Like she couldn't bring them together.

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: Yeah. When—when people would speak to me I would—I remembered in pictures. So if somebody would ask me who's the president of the United States of America, this is a huge question. So for the next several hours I'd be pondering. "President. President. President. What's a president? President." And then I would get a picture in my mind of a president as a leader.

JAD: Was it a picture of a specific guy?

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: It's—it was—actually it still flashes into my mind. It's a picture of a silhouette of a male.

ROBERT: A presidential profile.

JAD: Like maybe the idea of a president, basically.


JAD: So that was her president.

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: And then I had to figure out a United States. And so eventually I come up with this map in my mind, this picture of the United States.

JAD: Like a line drawing. So now she's got this map, she's got this silhouette of a guy. And she said after hours ...

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: President. United States. President. United States. And it was like, "Oh my God!"

JAD: ... she still couldn't somehow bring them together.


JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: And I didn't have the road that I had to travel in order to come up with—I think it was Clinton at the time. Yeah, it was Clinton at the time.

JAD: Now as Jill starts to get better ...

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: This is after eight years of hard work and recovery.

ROBERT: ... finally the words start to trickle back.

JAD: And when they did, she says, that silence that she loved so much got pushed out.

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: That was one of the sacrifices. For me that was one of the sacrifices.

JAD: Wow!

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: [laughs] Wow!

ROBERT: [laughs] We're doing a —we're doing a language show here and you're the anti-queen of our language show! You're, like, saying who needs it? What the hell?

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: No. No, no, no, no. No, but what I am saying is that in order for us to communicate with language, we pull ourselves away from a different kind of experience. I do believe that there are times when you need to let your brain chatter be quiet.

ROBERT: But is it fair to say that this is—please agree or disagree with this statement.


ROBERT: I think that words and language and grammar are necessary, but not half as good as wind in my hair, as smell in my nose, and that old right brain sensual immediacy.

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: Yeah. You know, if I had to choose—which is essentially what you're saying, if I had to choose, that would be a really, really, really tough decision.

JAD: Jill Bolte Taylor is the author of—what's it called, the book?

ROBERT: My Stroke of Insight.

JAD: Yes. Check our website, for any details. And if you subscribe to our podcast there is a bonus video that goes along with this hour. And it's pretty great.

JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. Our topic today?

ROBERT: Words.

JAD: The power of words, of language. Okay, so Nicaragua, 1970s. That's where our next story starts. Are you with me?

ROBERT: Mm-hmm.

JAD: So imagine you're a kid that's deaf in Nicaragua at this time.

ROBERT: Born deaf, or ...?

JAD: Born deaf.

ROBERT: Born deaf. Okay.

JAD: You've always been deaf, and you're the only one in your family that's deaf. So you're in this situation where everybody's talking, their mouths are moving. You can't hear it, and you don't know sign language because no one's taught you.

ROBERT: There was no deaf school in Nicaragua then?

JAD: Nothing.


JAD: No deaf education of any kind. So if you were this kid, all you've really got are a couple of gestures, really crude gestures you've worked out to talk to your family and friends, but beyond that you're cut off. Like Ildefonso, the guy we met at the beginning of the show. Except in Nicaragua in the '70s, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of these Ildefonsos.

ROBERT: Really?

JAD: Yeah. But then everything changes.

ANN SENGHAS: In the late '70s, Hope Somoza, who was the wife of the then dictator, established a new school for special education. I think she had someone in her family who had a disability—not deafness.

JAD: But the school would include deaf people, and that, says psychology professor Ann Senghas, was a first. Because now instead of deaf kids scattered about, they were together in the same room.

ANN SENGHAS: There were 50 deaf kids in that first entering class.

JAD: Preschool to sixth grade.

ANN SENGHAS: In the late '70s.

JAD: And for most of them, this was the first time they'd ever met another deaf person.

ANN SENGHAS: Before, the world was going on around them and everyone was all talking and they were cut off from that. And suddenly for the first time, they were all there and they were what was happening, and they were what there was to talk about.

JAD: But they didn't have a way of talking. These were 50 different kids who'd never learned a language and had 50 different sets of, like, rudimentary gestures that they used.

ROBERT: Whoa, that must have been ...

JAD: Yeah, like, 50 people with 50 different ways to try and ...

ROBERT: Ask for breakfast.

JAD: Or say they want to go outside. I mean, nothing was shared.

ANN SENGHAS: It's not like the teachers were using sign in the classroom. Everything in the classroom was Spanish.

JAD: Which none of them knew.

ANN SENGHAS: Copying it into their notebooks. A lot of it was going right over their heads.

JAD: So at the beginning, things were completely confusing.

ANN SENGHAS: But they're riding on the bus for an hour every day, and they're playing out at recess for an hour every day, and they're getting together at the park.

JAD: And no one knows how it happened. Like, maybe one of the kids who was ...

ANN SENGHAS: Very charismatic.

JAD: He invented a sign for, say, ball. Then told it to another kid who was ...

ANN SENGHAS: Very, you know, socially active.

JAD: And that second kid then spread the sign. However it worked, over time the signs that these 50 kids used ...

ANN SENGHAS: Started to converge into a common system.

JAD: And when you step back from it all, what that means ...

ANN SENGHAS: They created a language. They—they didn't just take it from somewhere else. They couldn't take it from somewhere else. They created their own.

JAD: But how unusual is that?

ANN SENGHAS: Like, this has happened with languages all over the world, but not while people were watching.

JAD: And so you're saying this is the first time we've been able to watch a language being born?


JAD: Wow!

JAD: And for the last 20 years that is what Ann has been doing, she's been going to Nicaragua to that school and watching.

ANN SENGHAS: So—oh you wanted to describe the—I may have gotten recording of this, but when you arrive at the school the buses come around. The kids are all screaming and leaning out the windows and signing to each other. And the kids pile out and they line up in rows on the basketball court that's in the center of the schoolyard. And they all sing the national hymn. And the deaf kids all sign the national hymn, and they all have one hand over their heart and sign with the other hand while the hearing kids sing it.

JAD: Ann visited the school for the first time in 1990, about 10 years after it was formed. She'd been working at the time with a linguist ...

ANN SENGHAS: Named Judy Kegel.

JAD: ... studying basic linguist type stuff.

ANN SENGHAS: Right. Trying to figure how the verbs work, and whether they have agreement with their grammatical objects.

JAD: And along the way, her and a collaborator Jennie Pyers stumbled into something really surprising about the power of certain words. So to set it up: when she got there the first time in—to Nicaragua, those original 50 kids who'd invented this thing had grown up already, and there were these younger generations of kids coming in behind them, growing up with the language, using it, inventing new signs. And at a certain point, she got curious to just compare the original signers, the older kids, to the younger kids.


JAD: In terms of how they signed.

ANN SENGHAS: So we show everyone this old one-minute cartoon about this guy who's trying to fly. He sees a bird flying, and he puts all these feathers on his body and climbs up to the top of a mountain. Flaps his arms and jumps and crashes on the ground.

JAD: So she showed deaf kids of different generations this cartoon and asked them pretty simply to describe ...

ANN SENGHAS: What they saw.

JAD: Just describe it in sign.

ANN SENGHAS: Describe the whole story.

JAD: The differences were striking.


JAD: First of all ...

ANN SENGHAS: So I'll just show you an example of each.

JAD: So you're opening up a movie here.

ANN SENGHAS: So this is a first cohort sign we're talking about.

JAD: She got out her laptop and showed me some video, first of this woman in her 40s with dark hair and a colorful t-shirt. She was one of the original signers. And when you see older signers like her describe this guy who's trying to fly, it's really spastic. It's almost like they become the cartoon. And she's flapping her hands ...


JAD: ... moving all around.

ANN SENGHAS: A lot of full body movements. She's talking about someone who's moving in a crazy way, she's gonna be moving in a crazy way. And ...

JAD: Then she showed me a young kid who was about eight with a backwards cap.

ANN SENGHAS: So here's Sylvester, and now he talks about the manner.

JAD: When he described the man jumping and then falling, it was all in the wrist.

ANN SENGHAS: All the movement is now in the hand, and it's very ...

JAD: Stylish.

ANN SENGHAS: [laughs] You know, they're trimming these signs down.

JAD: But more to the point, there was one thing she noticed that was really unexpected, it had nothing to do with movement.

ANN SENGHAS: Couldn't help noticing that they—the people, different people in the community talked about different things in this story. The older signers tended to describe all the events in this story.

JAD: And only the events.

ANN SENGHAS: And the younger kids ...

JAD: They would talk about the guy's feelings.

ANN SENGHAS: That this guy was trying to fly, wanted to fly but failed.

JAD: The kids, she says, just seem to be better at ...

ANN SENGHAS: Thinking about ...

JAD: Thinking.

ANN SENGHAS: ... thinking.

JAD: Like other people's thinking. So Ann and Jennie decided let's take all the different generations of deaf kids ...

ANN SENGHAS: 40 year olds, 30 year olds, 20 year olds, 10 year olds ...

JAD: ... let me test them on how well they can think about thinking. So what they did was they showed everybody a comic strip—different from before. This one was about two brothers.

ANN SENGHAS: There's a big brother who's playing with a train, and then the little brother is, like, wanting to play with the train. And the big brother's playing with the train. And then the big brother puts it under the bed and goes into the kitchen to eat a sandwich.

JAD: And maybe before he goes he looks at the little brother and says, "Hey! Don't touch my train. Don't touch it!"

ANN SENGHAS: And then little brother, while the big brother's out of the room, takes the train out and hides it in the toy box. And then the big brother comes back, and the question is where's the big brother gonna go to find his train? Is he gonna look under the bed or is he gonna look in the toy box?

ROBERT: Well, he's gonna look under the bed.

JAD: Yep.

ROBERT: Because as far as he knows that's where he left it.

JAD: Yeah.

ANN SENGHAS: He didn't see it move.

JAD: And if you ask kids over the age of five, most of them would say he's gonna look under the bed because that's where he left it and he doesn't know that it's been moved to the toy box. But here's the thing: when she asked the older signers ...

ANN SENGHAS: They would say, "Oh, he'll look in the toy box."

JAD: Really?

ANN SENGHAS: They would pick the wrong one. These are 35 year olds.

JAD: 35 year olds would get this wrong?

ANN SENGHAS: They would fail this test, yeah.

JAD: Seven out of eight, she says.

ANN SENGHAS: And then all of the younger signers that we worked with passed.

JAD: At this point she's just confused. Like, why would this be? Why can't the older people pass this simple test that involves thinking about someone else's thinking? What's going on here? And then it occurred to her it might have something to do with certain words, because the older signers they don't really have that many words for the concept of ...

ANN SENGHAS: Thinking.

JAD: I mean, they have mainly just one sign.

JAD: Pointing at your forehead?


JAD: Basically you just point at your forehead with your index finger. But by the time you get to the younger kids, they've got tons of words for thinking.

ANN SENGHAS: Things like, "I know something and I know that you don't know it."

JAD: "I know something and I know you do know it. They've got a sign for "understand," "believe."

ANN SENGHAS: Believe, remember, forget.

JAD: How many roughly were there?

ANN SENGHAS: 10 or 12.

JAD: Wow! So from 30 years we go from just a couple to ...

ANN SENGHAS: Well, we went from knowing and not knowing. Right.

JAD: To 12?


JAD: And somehow that makes all the difference, she says. The more of these "think words" you've got the more you can think.

JAD: Am I right to say that? You're tiptoeing toward that.


JAD: But maybe you don't want to go there all the way?

ANN SENGHAS: Yeah, I'm trying to think that—I guess I don't think it's so simple that you could just go in and say, "Hey, I'm gonna teach you 10 signs today and now suddenly you're gonna have better cognitive capacity."

JAD: But you are saying though that the verb, "think" ...


JAD: ... is somehow implicated in my ability to think about your thinking.

ANN SENGHAS: Right. Thinking about thinking. Understanding how other people understand. That's something that having language makes you better at.

JAD: There are certain words, she says, that don't just give you a name for something, somehow they give you access to a concept that would otherwise be really hard to get or even talk about. It's really hard to talk about thoughts without the word "thoughts." Or what is time without the word "time?" It's a really freaking hard concept. These words are like bridges. Somehow they get you to some new mental place that otherwise you'd be cut off from.

JAD: But that's sad though. I mean, these young kids have something that the people who actually invented the language don't.

ANN SENGHAS: But we went back two years later, tested the same people. And then suddenly some of them were performing a lot better than they had the two years before on the same kinds of tasks.

JAD: You mean the older signers?


JAD: They were passing suddenly?

ANN SENGHAS: Some of them were passing, yeah.

JAD: What happened?

ANN SENGHAS: What happened in the past two years?

JAD: Yeah!

ANN SENGHAS: Those younger kids grew up and started hanging out at the deaf association.

JAD: Wait, what?

ANN SENGHAS: [laughs] So what had happened in the meantime ...

JAD: So here's the strange twist to the whole thing: the deaf association is this place where the older signers would hang out.

ANN SENGHAS: Yeah, it's a social club.

JAD: So they'd play chess, do whatever. Well, at a certain point these youngsters start showing up, you know, because they've graduated and they want to hang out at the deaf association too. But they bring with them all of their new ...

ANN SENGHAS: Mental verbs.

JAD: You know, all these words for thinking. They start using it with the older kids. The older kids pick it up. Suddenly these older kids are now passing the test!

ANN SENGHAS: So there was learning that took place in adulthood that actually gives them new insight into other people's thinking and motivation, and now they can pass these tasks.

JAD: That's super interesting!

ANN SENGHAS: So that's the story. It's really cool!

JAD: Ann Senghas is an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College in New York.

ROBERT: The thing of course you wonder is once you've gotten these—this new facility in you—like, there's a lot of literature about this. My Fair Lady is about this.

JAD: My Fair Lady is about this?

ROBERT: Yeah, it's about a woman who learns proper English, and she can no longer be a flower girl in Covent Garden. She's now a lady.

JAD: Yeah, I guess it is kind of like this.

ROBERT: You wonder—like, remember that our program began with the story of Ildefonso?

JAD: Right, which we heard from Susan Schaller. Ildefonso, who was the guy who for 27 years had no language at all.

ROBERT: So you kind of wonder ...

SUSAN SCHALLER: I mean, I can tell you ...

ROBERT: ... like, what happened to Ildefonso once he got language.

JAD: Right. And after that first breakthrough where Ildefonso realized things have names, Susan ended up leaving for a few years.

SUSAN SCHALLER: Let's see, it was about four years, I think. Four or five.

JAD: But then she decided to write a book about him.

SUSAN SCHALLER: And so I went and found him again. And he had language, and I could ask him all kinds of questions.

JAD: Were you able then to sit down with him and ask him about his life and really get the—sort of his biography?

SUSAN SCHALLER: Somewhat, somewhat. One area that everyone wants to know about is what it was like to be languageless. You know, what was going on in his head.

JAD: Yeah.

SUSAN SCHALLER: And I asked and I asked and I asked. And he starts telling me that was the dark time in his life. Learning language is like the lights went on. And I tell him well, we know about language and we want to know what it's like not to have language and he doesn't want to talk about it.

ROBERT: But there was a day, she says, when she was writing the book and she met Ildefonso in a restaurant. And there he was sitting with his brother Mario, who she'd never met before. And she quickly learned that Mario also was deaf.

SUSAN SCHALLER: And languageless.

JAD: Really?

SUSAN SCHALLER: So I was shocked and because I was so amazed going I can't believe you have a languageless brother, that's when Ildefonso said, "Well, let—let me introduce you to some of my friends."

ROBERT: So they get in the car and they drive for a while.

SUSAN SCHALLER: We stop at this apartment. We walk into this small little room, and there were these six Mexican men doing this mime routine.

JAD: Wait, all of these guys were like Ildefonso used to be?

SUSAN SCHALLER: They had no language.

JAD: Wow!

SUSAN SCHALLER: They were all born deaf and they didn't know they were deaf.

JAD: And what—what were they doing?

SUSAN SCHALLER: One man would stand up and he would start miming. He would just start acting out a bull fight. So he'd be the bull and he'd be charging, and then he'd be the matador, and then he'd be somebody in the crowd watching. And then he would add a detail.

ROBERT: For example ...


ROBERT: And then they'd swap, so then another guy would get up to take over the story.

SUSAN SCHALLER: Then they'd start miming.

ROBERT: They'd reenact the matador.

SUSAN SCHALLER: Describe the hat.

ROBERT: But now the second storyteller would add a new detail.

SUSAN SCHALLER: Like another person with a pair of glasses or something.

ROBERT: So each one would stand up, take the bullfight, the same bullfight to a different point and add a detail?

SUSAN SCHALLER: [laughs] Exactly, exactly.

ROBERT: Oh my God!

SUSAN SCHALLER: In other words, it would take them maybe 45 minutes to say, "Do you remember the time when we were at the bullfight and this woman did such and such?"

JAD: Hmm. Wow!

SUSAN SCHALLER: It was like drawing a picture.

ROBERT: Let me ask you a pull-it-all-together question. I was about to think that what a language is is a great connector, but this last story makes me wonder. These are five men really sharing and connecting on details, so is the difference that language makes just efficiency, or does it affect your heart or your whole way of—I can't tell. I'm not sure anymore.

SUSAN SCHALLER: Well, I'll give you Ildefonso's answer, which when I saw him a couple years later after this incident, I asked him about his friends and he said he couldn't talk to them anymore. He—he wasn't willing to go through that tedious effort of all the miming anymore. But the interesting thing that he said was he can't even think that way anymore. He said he can't think the way he used to think, and when I pushed him to ask about what it was like to be languageless, the closest he ever came to any kind of an answer was exactly that. "I don't know, I don't remember. I think differently now."

JAD: Susan Schaller is author of the book, A Man Without Words. Go to for more info, and if you go there or if you're subscribed to our podcast you'll get this automatically, but there's a beautiful short film directed by two really talented guys Will Hoffman and Daniel Mercadante that is all about words.

[ANSWERING MACHINE: Message seven.]

[ANN SENGHAS: Hi. This is Ann Senghas, just back from Nicaragua just in time to read in the credits. Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad and Pat Walters. Our staff includes Ellen Horne ...]

[JAMES SHAPIRO: ... Soren Wheeler ...]

[CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: ... Brenna Farrell ...]

[ANN SENGHAS: ... Lulu Miller ...]

[JAMES SHAPIRO: ... Tim Howard ...]

[CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: ... and Lynn Levy.]

[ANN SENGHAS: With help from Sharon Shattuck, Rehman ...]

[SUSAN SCHALLER: ... Tungekar, Nicole Kouri ...]

[JAMES SHAPIRO: ... and Sam Roudman. Special thanks to Posey Gruener.]


[ANSWERING MACHINE: End of message.]



Copyright © 2023 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at for further information.


New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists