Posts tagged with "The Myth of Mirror Neurons"

Must a person speak a language to understand it?

This is an important question to ask for instructors of ancient languages who want to move toward communicative approaches to language instruction, and the answer to this question is: no.  This doesn’t necessarily rule out that we should use communication in ancient language instruction (though for this and a number of other reasons I wouldn’t), but it should at least mitigate the degree to which instructors insist on it for everyone.

One problem with the view that a person must speak a language in order to properly understand it, which we sadly learn about mostly from the misfortunes of people with language disorders, is that language production and understanding dissociate.  In other words, different language problems can affect either production or comprehension.  I was reminded of this while reading Gregory Hickok’s The Myth of Mirror Neurons shortly after writing my previous post which pertained to some extent with language instruction and understanding.  Hickok describes at length the observations of Eric Lenneberg on one of his patients:

Lenneberg noted that the child’s ability to speak was effectively nil. The child cried and laughed normally but made only cough-like grunts that accompanied his attempts to communicate via pantomime. When he played alone, he often made sounds that resembled Swiss yodeling, although he had never been exposed to the art form. Lenneberg further noted that as the child got older, and after years of speech therapy, he could repeat a few words after his therapist or mother, but even these attempts were “barely intelligible” and were never produced on his own.

Lenneberg was fascinated by the boy’s ability to comprehend language, which the scientist characterized as “normal and adequate understanding of spoken language.” This observation was confirmed over more than 20 visits and by several doctors and speech therapists, both informally and formally. The boy could follow complex commands such as “Take the block and put it on the bottle” and he could appropriately respond, albeit nonverbally, to questions about a short story that was read to him. He was not merely cuing off the body language of the researchers: he accurately followed commands even when he couldn’t see the investigator. The cause of the speech production deficit could not be determined. Lenneberg called it “congenital dysarthia” – difficulty controlling the speech articulators – and concluded that the ability to master receptive language, to understand, did not depend on the ability to produce or imitate speech.

Dissociations between production and comprehension are also present in different kinds of aphasia (for good introductions to aphasia see Basso and Goodglass; Basso is probably the better of the volumes, but Goodglass is a little easier to read). Aphasias also differ in how they affect the ability to read.  Yet Lenneberg’s patient and others like him demonstrate that a person can understand a language though they may never have been able to produce it. Of course, this should be taken with a bit of a grain of salt since, as I pointed out in my last post, a second language will never be the same as a first language.  But, even working on that analogy, it does not seem to be the case that the ability to speak a language is a necessity for understanding it.