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Words that Change the World

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paper clip (Domiriel/flickr)

Susan Schaller believes that the best idea she ever had in her life had to do with an isolated young man she met one day at a community college. He was 27-years-old at the time, and though he had been born deaf, no one had ever taught him to sign. He had lived his entire life without language--until Susan found a way to reach out to him.

Charles Fernyhough doesn't think that very young children think--at least not in a way he'd recognize as thinking. Charles explains what he means by walking us through an experiment in a white room. And Elizabeth Spelke weighs in with research from her baby lab--which suggests a child's brain begins as a series of islands, until it can find the right words and phrases to bridge the gaps.

James Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar at Columbia, argues that Shakespeare behaved more like a chemist than a writer: by smashing words together--words like eye and ball--he created new words, and new ways of seeing the world.


Charles Fernyhough, Susan Schaller, James Shapiro and Elizabeth Spelke

Comments [34]

Gary Welch from london, UK

I have a problem with this. If I walked into the rectangular room and had to remember where something was I really would NOT think about it verbally. I would visualise its location, using the visual cue of the blue wall. I would not 'verbally' think to my self It's to the left of the blue wall. Who does that? Visualisation is how I locate things in space in my mind not using words. It's actually quite ridiculous; left and right need a reference. As I walk into the room the object may on the right but if I was facing away from it I would have to say to myself it is on the left when I turn around. How would I even start to do that without visualising my location in the room? Maybe I am missing something here?

Sep. 28 2017 11:58 AM
Gary Welch from london, UK

I have a problem with this. If I walked into the rectangular room and had to remember where something was I really would NOT think about it verbally. I would visualise its location, using the visual cue of the blue wall. I would not 'verbally' think to my self It's to the left of the blue wall. Who does that? Visualisation is how I locate things in space in my mind not using words. It's actually quite ridiculous; left and right need a reference. As I walk into the room the object may on the right but if I was facing away from it I would have to say to myself it is on the left when I turn around. How would I even start to do that without visualising my location in the room? Maybe I am missing something here?

Sep. 28 2017 11:57 AM
Aaron Wright from Jersey City, NJ

I really enjoyed this episode. However, I can't help but feel this discussion is lacking without acknowledging any of the advances Philosophy of Language has made, particularly Wittgenstein's groundbreaking Philosophical Investigations and his (extremely relevant) look into the concept of private language.

Sep. 26 2017 11:36 AM
Frank from Harrisburg

Several comments have noted how Ildefonso's experience parallels that of Helen Keller. But more than that, in this story as presented here, Ildefonso quotes Helen Keller's autobiography word-for-word at the exact moment he discovers "everything has a name." To be honest, this makes me suspect Susan Schaller's story may be somewhat fictionalized. And that suspicion makes me wonder if the story might be complete fiction. Has it been fact-checked?

It's still a moving story, but perhaps it's Helen Keller's moving story, not Ildefonso's.

Nov. 21 2015 01:25 PM
Bill Lupatkin

I'm a retired pediatrician and have always been struck at the way infants clearly have normal memory, but that we seem to lose all those early memories by the time we're 4 or 5yrs old. My guess has always been that it related to the acquisition of language. The story of the adult who FORGOT what it was like before he had language is a very telling experiment of nature. It appears my guess is correct.

Nov. 21 2015 01:14 PM
Anastasia Krylov from Los Angeles, CA

I am engaged in a discussion with a Deaf person about language and the importance thereof, and would like to share this fascinating episode with them. Is there a transcription available?

Jun. 08 2015 10:14 PM
Dharmalingam from Johor Bahru, Malaysia

I found Susan Schaller's account of the man without words fascinating. But how essential are words for understanding the world. When you look at animals, dogs for instance, it seems as though they are able to see cats of various kinds and recognise them as a specific kind of animal - all without words.

That leads me to another thought - words are not essential for thinking. They are essential for sharing our thinking with others. So when a child grows, it is learning how to think and also learning how to share thoughts - both different skills.

But in a classroom where so much importance is placed on language, are we not ignoring the first skill - learning to think? We are basically leaving it up to the child to figure that out - perhaps that is not such a bad thing.

Another thought - could excessive focus on words distract the child from considering the first skill? Could it also stunt the development of the first skill? There is a need to give the proper place to the importance of words

Jul. 25 2014 07:56 PM
Lesli from Rome, GA

I loved James Shapiro's bit on the phrases that Shakespeare made up---amazing!

Jul. 22 2014 12:38 PM
Lisa Johnson in Wyomin, USA

I am not sure how long it takes for them to get these up on the web, but there are transcripts. Here is a link to the one for this entire episode.

I hope that Tyrone Giordano and Judy Kropf from Garrison, NY see this link or have found it.
Best wishes to all of my fellow fans of Radio Lab!

Feb. 02 2014 05:54 PM
Tyrone Giordano

I'm not sure how appropriate it is that a segment that talks about a deaf person who had not been exposed to language is not accessible to a Deaf person such as myself. Are there any transcripts or captions for this and any other episodes that cover topics involving deaf people?

Aug. 19 2013 04:19 AM
Judy Kropf from Garrison, NY

Is there a way to get all of these segments transcribed? I'd love to send them to my deaf friends to get their perspective. Brilliant podcast, by the way. Love, love, love RadioLab!!!!

May. 21 2013 02:54 PM
Jessie Henshaw from Uptown

You have a lot of illusions, and perceptions, but "what is thought" depends on where you ***think*** reality is located.

Once you ask it there's pressing question how to resolve the appearance that reality might have have TWO faces? Does reality exist... perhaps, both in "what we are looking at" (nature's reality) AND in "what we see" the mind's reality. So, you're totally correct the mind's reality is created with its "words" but it's also clear those are ***local creations of the mind holding them***.

Go on from there. Ask for help if req'd.

May. 18 2013 06:35 PM
Jeff Pearson from NYC

Is there any way to get a tracklist from this piece. There’s a beautiful song that comes on as she’s describing the man without words getting what words were.

Mar. 13 2013 02:49 AM
mattusa from Berlin, Germany

The story was good, sensitive, well edited as always, but Susan's story was missing too much about the mysterious man without words, too many subjective assumptions about how the man was thinking. She signed a picture of 'an open book and he opened a book, or a man standing up, and he stood up'. Why is that a misinterpretation of labels? Seemed logical to me, and these were the only, rather unfortunate ,examples. But so what, it was very intriguing, and very emotional as he grasps the essence of our perception on how we communicate. This was powerful, our association with things, that make up our life, our identity, and the emotional connection with other things and animals (moon, eagle, clock). What if... the truth is, the tables are turned, and we are all massively restricted in our dimenstions for understanding by these labels, and the man without words, Ildefonso, helpless watched us, while he was well beyond labels for understanding things, and I watch him, blissfully unaware of this level.

Feb. 14 2013 04:44 AM
James from New Mexico

As a secular contemplative I maintain a steady undercurrent of self-reflexive thinking about thinking and self-reflection, and must side with Charles Fernyhough on the nature of thought. Thought is the internal dialogue we maintain in our continual narration of our lives. What is left (internally) when words are removed from the mental process is feeling; a stream of sensations experienced in the eternal moment we call "now". And feelings are not the same as emotions. Emotions are second-level feelings that arise from thinking about words, such as the words "unfair" or "selfish" or "stubborn". Sit down sometime in a quiet room and try to produce no internal words (it takes some practice). You'll see how attached we have become to them. Or if you're very angry with someone, try turning off the internal dialogue and see if the anger doesn't fade away. Meditative exercises seek to discipline the person to suspend the internal dialogue, and expand that blissful state of wordlessness. In conclusion, words get us in touch with each other, but wordlessness gets us in touch with the universe.

Jul. 09 2012 04:29 PM
Ashley from New Jersey

This piece is one that touched my heart. I found it inspiring, easy to follow, and very interesting. It explained the importance or words with their connection to their meaning. The reference to language disorders to make the point of the power or language was a wonderful association. This is my favorite narrative.

Dec. 20 2011 12:28 AM
Ann from Boston

I loved this episode, as I always love Radiolab. But I was surprised that you didn't mention Helen Keller in the segment on the man without language, and the directly analogous experience when Annie Sullivan finally reaches her and makes the connection between the concept and reality of "water" and the sign for "water" she has been making.

Nov. 19 2011 04:07 PM
Stanley from West Village

Fascinating topic, but I was only able to listen for about 4 minutes. The wait for Robert Krulwich to finally say "so, rats can't connect Both Left And Blue" was excruciating Luckily "Marketplace Money", a show which dispenses a lot of information and treats the listener as if he/she can parse complete sentences, was on AM.

Jul. 09 2011 06:49 AM

I found the "left of the blue wall" segment fascinating. I have problems with the words left and right. The words are not intuitive to me I have to carefully think each time I use them. But I don't lose things or get lost (at least not any more than most people). I wonder how people like me would do on that test since I don't think I use the words left and right in my internal dialog.

Have they ever run that blue wall test on people who can't master left/right or with people who speak languages that don't have the words left/right? Do they do any better than rats?

May. 09 2011 03:03 PM
John Kelly from Lawrence, Kansas, USA

I have loved making maps since early childhood. I recently came across a notebook I'd drawn maps in when I was six years old. The "Left of the Blue Wall" part of this episode informed me that it would have been pretty much impossible to have made those maps (which, like almost all maps, conveyed the combined patterns of at least two spatial categories) even just a few months earlier. Fascinating!

Mar. 13 2011 08:09 AM
boonskis from michigan

There are some issues here:

How did Ildefonso "survive" up till 27 years old? Did he not have "symbols" (pieces of language) different from our traditional units of writing, signing or speaking?

How do ants navigate by the sun, a kind of blue wall, through the desert? or honeybees?

Agreed that language takes us to a new level

Dec. 05 2010 09:50 PM
Deborah from Western Washignton, USA

I listened to this program with great interest. My graduate degree is in teaching people who are deaf. While earning my degree (back in the late 1970s), I was influenced greatly by the work of Jean Piaget from Switzerland. He wrote a number of books, and the one that first caught my attention was "Thinking Without Language" in which he argues for a person's innate intelligence that is NOT dependent on language. He studied his own children and noted the stages of development and contended that development is not dependent on language. Since deaf people were historically thought to have mental retardation due to their "lack of language", his work was ground breaking. I used his principles with children who had severe mental retardation and experienced great success in helping them develop. I highly recommend his books! Thanks for another thought-provoking and wonderful program.

Nov. 27 2010 08:18 PM

can yoy put a summer for each epoised. i want it for my project please

Nov. 19 2010 09:13 AM
MCJ from New York

As a reading specialist, first grade teacher and Mom of three kids ages 6.9 and 12, I was eager to listen to this podcast. I was surprised when you mentioned the fact that age six is relevant to certain language processing without mentioning that this is the same time that many children begin to read. It seems there may be some connection to the brain's ability to integrate multiple ideas at one time that impact understanding of spoken language and may make it possible for literacy.
Perhaps there is another show in this idea? Thanks for your fabulous show. My 12 year old son and I love to listen to it together!

Oct. 07 2010 11:30 AM
Maude from NYC

i am a book cover designer --making a picture to represent the words. the trouble is to then try to explain the design with words to publishers. It's funny because I feel like the words of the book go into this tunnel, and I watch them come out a picture. and then, I describe them with words to whomever is needing to understand what I the pictures mean. unfortunately I know my words as they are coming out my mouth are not representative of picture---and idea gets rejected. sigh.

Sep. 27 2010 09:12 PM
Tim from Stony Brook, NY

I was taken by the story of the group miming the bull fight and the re-enacting the complete story, adding to it their contribution. The next person retell the story with their new additions. The thought that came to me was similarity to whale songs. As I understand, whale songs can be quite lengthy and repetitive but over time there are additions. This sounded somewhat similar to this group of individuals.

Sep. 27 2010 03:33 PM
kirk from Maryland

What a fascinating and uplifting story. As soon as my 12 and 10-year-old daughters heard it, they both had the same question: Did Ildefonso speak or sign the poignant phrase, "Everything has a name"?

It's powerful either way, but I wasn't sure from listening. Anybody know? I do plan to buy the book, and I'm sure it will be clear then.

Sep. 23 2010 12:16 AM
wendy from Brussels

My "mother-in-law" works with deaf children. A couple of years ago she had a girl in her group that did not have any notion of sound, or words. She learned how to sign and communicate, but still the concept that there was sound - she was completely deaf from birth - was unknown to her. For this they gave her a special bracelet which converted sound into physical vibration. This kind of bracelet is very handy for example for her to be aware of traffic. One night, she runs excitedly to my mother in law, and she points that she will run upstairs. From the window she shouts - a hurl.
Then she points to the bracelet. She then instructs my mother in law to go upstairs and shout. When my mother in law came back, the little girl pointed to her bracelet, indicating that she had discovered that there was sound. Ok, she will never be able to hear, but this moment made her understand the world a lot better. She does not need the bracelet anymore...

Sep. 14 2010 04:26 PM
To from East of Poland

@ tiktokit from Manchester - just wanted to tell you that it is September already.

Sep. 08 2010 01:20 AM
Debbie from Land O Lakes FL

As an educator, this speaks volumes as to the direction we should take with our youngest students. Susan's moment so very much reminded me of the "water" moment between Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. Brought tears to my eyes, too.

Sep. 05 2010 03:56 PM
Amariah from S. Cal

Susan....I began to cry the moment that I realized, that he realized that everything has a name...and then, you said he began to heart was so effected by this. What a rare privilege to have such an opportunity to help at least one person in your lifetime come to such a profound level of thought. Although we do this with our children as our parents did with us, we cannot come close to the appreciation he must have for having lived, then learned language whereas we learn language then live.....
Am curious, why didn't his friends desire to learn as well? And, what is he doing with his life now?

Sep. 02 2010 08:50 PM
Corrie Francis Parks from Wanaka, New Zealand

My husband tells me this piece of experiential wisdom from his career as a kids ski instructor. You can take a 6 year old to the bathroom and leave him to do his business and and he will most likely be able to find his way back outside to the group. But if you take a 5 year old and leave him, you will most certainly have a lost child on your watch. They cannot reverse their spatial experiences. There is decidedly something that happens in the mysterious growing stage between 5 and 6.

Sep. 01 2010 08:29 PM
Angela from Massachusetts

I listened to this episode with both my 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter in the car. I have seen the transformation in my daughter from 5yo to 6yo where the cognitive linking begins. Last year, I tried to start her on piano lessons and she could not connect the notes on the page to something that her fingers needed to do. This year, she finally got it. So I was really excited that she had finally started to think like Charles Fernyhough explained.

Afterwards, I asked what she thought of the episode, especially the segment on "Left of the Blue Wall". She just looked at me confused and said, "But what does that MEAN???" So close, yet so far. My son and I just shook our heads.

Aug. 16 2010 11:27 PM
tiktokit from Manchester

Just want to say that the date is wrong, it's still August~~

Aug. 10 2010 05:04 AM

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