I admit that I haven’t studied much of linguistics. I’m reading The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker, and it seems like one of the base assumptions that I have never seen questioned (not just in this book so far, but in all the limited linguistics that I’ve come across) is that people all learn language in a fundamentally similar way, that people who are “naturals” at language and people who struggle with it are taking fundamentally the same approach at learning it.
However, after doing a fair amount of research for a work-for-hire autism book, I have to say that I can’t believe that’s the case.
People with autism have to have at least one of these in order to get a diagnosis from the DSM-IV:
(B) qualitative impairments in communication as manifested by at least one of the following:
1. delay in, or total lack of, the development of spoken language (not accompanied by an attempt to compensate through alternative modes of communication such as gesture or mime)
2. in individuals with adequate speech, marked impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
3. stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language
4. lack of varied, spontaneous make-believe play or social imitative play appropriate to developmental level
How is it even possible that people with autism are learning language the same way?
You could say that “well, it’s an indication that the language centers of autistic people are broken,” or some such, but autism is really a spectrum of symptoms (Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD]), with some people having more severe or less severe problems in different areas; for example, you might never know that you’re talking to someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, even though they have language issues, because they have systems of workarounds.
There’s a great video up on Youtube of Amanda Baggs speaking in the language she uses, which is nothing like English or any other language I know, and yet manages to communicate something (to me, anyway). Did she acquire that language the same way I did mine?
I can’t see how. And on a lesser scale, I see people acquire language in different ways, from the way that my sister Kate did (at four months saying “Hi” to passers-by) to the way that Rachael did (she’s still more comfortable using gesture and umm’ing than she is with quips and jokes).
People have similar, yet dissimilar brains. I think the linguistics that I’ve read rely too heavily on how our brains are similar and not enough on how they are dissimilar. I suspect that something that communication tries to do is to bridge the gaps between different types of brains as well as different brains, and that assuming that all people learn language in fundamentally the same way will cut theorists off from the ability to find the ways that language bridges, for example, between people with engineer brain and people with music brain.