AUTHORS: Neil Smith, Ianthi Tsimpli, Gary Morgan, and Bencie Woll TITLE: The Signs of a Savant SUBTITLE: Language Against the Odds PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2011
Diane Brentari, Professor of Linguistics, University of Chicago
''The Signs of a Savant'' is a fascinating, extended case study of one individual whose name is Christopher (henceforth referred to as C.). He can be considered a 'language savant,' described by the authors as someone with ''a startling talent [for learning languages] in a sea of inability'' (p.1). He can read, write, speak, understand, and translate more than 20 languages, despite his other inabilities. If ''The Signs of a Savant'' were merely a description of this unique case, linguists would still be interested in reading about C., but if you are wondering what one individual case with a combination of idiosyncratic abilities can contribute to our general understanding of important issues concerning language and the mind, let me assure you that ''The Signs of a Savant'' offers penetrating insights into our understanding of the language faculty, theories of modularity, the structure of memory, as well as the structure of sign languages.
The perspective taken in this work is current generative theory (Chomsky 1981, 1995, 2002, and 2009) and a quasi-modular theory of cognition (Tsimpli & Smith 1998), which shares many aspects of Fodor's modular theory (1975, 1983), but also those of Sperber and Wilson (1986, 1995) for theories of relevance, as well as Baddeley's work on memory (2007). The general claim about C.'s abilities is that he has an intact language faculty, as defined by Chomsky, but some serious impairments in other cognitive components, such as visual cognition, memory, and pragmatics, along with a lack of the cultural encyclopedic knowledge that most learners bring to the language learning task. Even though the etiology of C.'s case is hardly straightforward, a combination of autism along with a possible diagnosis of hydrocephaly, the care with which the data on C. was collected and presented here makes it possible to obtain powerful evidence in favor of a generativist perspective on the language faculty as well as concerning the substance of that language faculty.
This particular work is a report of the authors' attempt to teach C. British Sign Language (BSL). Several other works about C. address the general nature of his abilities -- both his general mental abilities (Smith and Tsimpli 1995) and language abilities (Smith et al. 1993). In this review I will focus primarily on insights gained from observing C.'s BSL abilities, but since this was one step in a series of research efforts, a description of some of the other abilities that were uncovered while observing C. learning spoken and written languages can often provide background and context for the more specific BSL findings. For example, it is helpful for readers to know that in virtually all of C.'s languages the following are true: his comprehension abilities exceed his production abilities, his ability to learn complex morphology exceeds his ability to learn syntactic generalizations that concern resetting parameters, and he has difficulty using pragmatic knowledge in learning languages. Since the authors were not privy to the manner in which C. learned most of the languages he uses, the work reported in Smith et al. (1993) was helpful in contextualizing C.s learning experience with BSL. The pattern of learning regular complex morphology, as long as it was possible to learn the system via print, was evidenced in his acquisition of Berber. Smith et al. (1993) reported on C.'s learning of Berber, and but even considering the caveats above, his performance was quite impressive. In contrast, C.s ability to learn Epun, an invented language, which contained some impossible patterns, was quite poor. The generalizations concerning his language skills and the extensive battery of tests demonstrating C.s difficulties with memory and visuo-spatial tasks set the stage for the BSL results.
The methods used to teach C. BSL were meticulous and similar in important ways to the methods used in Smith et al. (1993). Instruction consisted of a limited number of contact hours -- 12 hours of lessons plus 12 more hours of casual conversations. The authors chose to focus primarily on 4 areas of BSL grammar: iconic vs. non-iconic signs, classifiers, negation, and verb agreement. Word order and Wh-questions were also taught to C., but the results were relatively inconclusive since he omitted some signs in his productions, making interpretation difficult. Each of the 4 primary areas of instruction was chosen to address specific hypotheses considered by the authors. Drawing on the methods used to teach C. Berber and Epun, the researchers chose a control group of learners in the 90 percentile of language learning abilities with which to compare C. as he learned BSL. This step allowed the authors to determine if his pattern of learning BSL was similar to or different from the control group in terms of pace and mastery. And, just as they had done in describing C.'s profile of general cognitive abilities, the team also designed a number of tests tailored to test their hypotheses, which were administered to C. and the control group whenever possible.
Given that C. has difficulties with visual cognition, memory, and spatial relations, it was hypothesized that he would have difficulty learning iconic signs, and this was indeed confirmed. While the control group of second language learners acquired iconic signs more readily than non-iconic ones at this early stage of BSL instruction, C. acquired signs that were non-iconic more readily. And when asked to invent signs for common objects, he invented signs that seemed not to take advantage of visual iconicity. I wish to point out that young children acquiring BSL as a first language do not show a preference for learning iconic signs either, but C. is not an L1 learner, and yet at this early stage of learning BSL when the control group of second language learners was taking advantage of visual iconicity, C. did not do so.
Because C. has problems with spatial relations and iconicity, it was hypothesized that he would have difficulty learning classifiers, and indeed this was the case. Part of his difficulty may stem from his severe apraxia. He could use a map, but he almost never used signing space to set up landmarks when requested to do so, and was unable to provide directions using classifier predicates. He was able to comprehend classifier structures more adeptly than produce them, but even in comprehension, compared with the control group, his comprehension in this area was severely impaired. On two tests designed to test classifier comprehension by using picture pointing as a response, C. obtained scores of 10% and 20% while the control group obtained mean scores of 72% and 89%, respectively.
Also in the area of verb agreement and associated pronominal signs, his difficulties with spatial relations were predicted to present an obstacle, and this also turned out to be the case. One of the main problems was that C. was unable to perform the mental rotation of signing space required to reproduce the correct verb agreement. He would sign YOU-GIVE-ME rather than target I-GIVE-YOU, which is an identical copy of the movement of the tutor rather than the correct rotated form. Surprisingly, though, he was better able to correctly produce object agreement than subject agreement. The interpretation of this result by the authors is that object agreement is obligatory, while the combination of morphological and syntactic factors, such as pro-drop, make subject-agreement optional, and therefore less regular. Since C.s difficulties with verb agreement seemed to stem from this rotation problem, but also included some areas where he performed fairly well (and certainly better than with classifiers), the authors conclude that verb agreement is not a natural extension of gesture, as some sign language researchers claim.
These are three areas where C. had difficulties learning BSL with respect to the control group. He has been shown to be extremely adept with learning complex morphology, so it was hypothesized that simultaneous morphology that was not based in any way on spatial relations might be one area where C. would excel. This turned out to be true for the use of the negative headshake. By the end of the instruction period, C. performed as well as the control group in the use of the negative headshake that was produced simultaneously with the verb as a negation marker. However, he had more difficulty using negation when it was a lexical process. For example, in BSL DON'T-KNOW, DON'T-LIKE, and DON'T-WANT are signs that have a different negative marker; i.e., a movement involving the twisting of the wrist outward from the place of articulation. C. had difficulty with these forms. The authors argue that C. was able to learn the 'regular' morphological use of the negative headshake, but not the more irregular lexicalized form.
The penultimate chapter of the book includes a comparison of C.'s BSL abilities with those of other groups of atypical signers, including aphasic signers, signers on the autistic spectrum (both autistic signers and one with Asperger's Syndrome), signers with Williams Syndrome, and one signer with cerebellar disturbance. C.'s autism and his motor problems (potentially associated with a cerebellar disturbance due to hydrocephaly), his inability to use pragmatics, and his visuo-spatial difficulties were very similar to groups that had previously been studied. For example, like C., right hemisphere damaged signers have difficulty with 'topographical space' -- when signs are used for mapping out space as space -- as opposed to 'grammatical space' -- when signs are used to index entities present and non present in the discourse.
This work makes a very strong case for a distinction between gesture and sign. There is a great deal of work in the functionalist tradition drawing research attention to the connections between gesture and sign. C.'s performance is counter-evidence to such work since his performance on gesture was very poor compared with his BSL abilities. For example, he scored very poorly on the Kimura test of non-representational gesture (Kimura 1982). The case of C. reinforces the finding that gesture abilities can be very impaired while signing abilities are not. The authors' comparison of C. with Heather, a young Deaf woman with specific visuo-spatial impairments reminiscent of Williams Syndrome, is especially informative (Atkinson et al. 2002). Her signing is similar to C.'s: language abilities in BSL well in advance of her visuo-spatial abilities and a disassociation within BSL grammar between devices that depend on grammatical processes involving space and those that do not.
This is a book for anyone interested in languages or the mind more generally. It was fortunate that the authors had contact with C. over such a long period of time so that they could share with us this detailed picture of an extremely interesting case of a language savant. Moreover, it is engagingly written, even as it is packed with detailed information. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in memory, atypical learners, sign language, or cognition.
Atkinson, Jo Bencie Woll, & Susan Gathercole. 2002. The impact of developmental visuospatial learning difficulties on British Sign Language. Neurocase 8. 424-441.
Baddeley, Alan. 2007. Working Memory, Thought, and Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding: the Pisa Lectures. Dordrecht: Foris.
Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 2002. On Nature and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 2009. Opening remarks. In M. Piattelli-Palmarini, J Uriagereka & P. Salaburn (eds.) Of Minds and Language: A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the Basque Country, pp. 13-43. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 2009. Conclusion. In M. Piattelli-Palmarini, J. Uriagereka & P. Salaburn (eds.) Of Minds and Language: A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the Basque Country, pp. 379-409. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fodor, Jerry. 1975. The Language of Thought. New York: Corwell.
Fodor, Jerry. 1983. The Modularity of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Smith, Neil, Ianthi. Tsimpli, & J. Ouhalla. 1993. Learning the impossible: The acquisition of possible and impossible languages by a polyglot savant. Lingua 91. 279-347.
Smith, Neil & Ianthi. Tsimpli. 1995. The Mind of a Savant: Language Learning and Modularity. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sperber, Deirdre & Dan Wilson. 1986/1995. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Tsimpli, Ianthi & Neil Smith. 1998. Modules and quasi-modules: Language and theory of mind in a polyglot savant. Learning and Individual Differences 10. 193-215.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Diane Brentari is Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics
at the University of Chicago. She has published 'A Prosodic Model of Sign
Language Phonology' (MIT, 1998), 'Foreign Vocabulary in Sign Languages'
(Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001) and 'Sign Languages: A Cambridge
Language Survey' (Cambridge University Press, 2010). She is currently
collaborating with researchers in Europe and Asia to address
cross-linguistic differences in sign language phonology and morphology, as
well as the relationship between gesture, homesign systems and sign languages.