SHEILAH KAST, host:
Researchers who study language are changing their views. Many used to think of language as a kind of plug-and-play device in the human brain. But in the past couple of decades, scientists who study the brain have found evidence that language isn't a self-contained module.
Some of that evidence has come from studying people with autism. Here's NPR's Jon Hamilton with the second part of his series on the nature of language.
JON HAMILTON reporting:
People with autism often struggle to learn language. They also struggle with personal relationships. That's probably not a coincidence.
A growing number of scientists now believe that language depends as much on the brain's circuits that help us navigate relationships as the ones that help us conjugate verbs. Dr. Temple Grandin is pretty sure they're right. She teaches animal science at Colorado State University.
After class, students line up to have a word with her.
Professor TEMPLE GRANDIN (Colorado State University): That's all right. The problem is I'm really busy today. You've got my phone number. I want you to call me. You leave a message on that answering service, you just say you're a student in the meat science class, and I will call you back.
HAMILTON: Grandin doesn't sound like someone who struggles with language, or a person with autism, but she is both. It's taken her decades to learn how to have a conversation that sounds normal. And the difficulties faced by Grandin and other people with autism have given researchers lots of clues about the nature of human language.
Grandin's journey began when she was three and a half.
Prof. GRANDIN: The first words I remember saying was dare for there. I'd pointed at something that I wanted, you know, like a piece of candy or whatever, and say there. And bro, for broken. I did quite a lot of breaking and throwing of things.
HAMILTON: Three and a half is pretty late for a child to start talking, especially one as smart as Grandin. And he wasn't using words to reach out to her parents or other children, the way most kids do. Grandin's first words referred to things, and she didn't really get interested in words until she found out they offered a way to get information.
Prof. GRANDIN: When I was in third grade I had trouble with reading. So mother taught me how to read. But then it was like so many interesting things in books to read about. I used to like to just get the World Book Encyclopedia and read it.
HAMILTON: But while Grandin was learning more and more facts, her classmates were using language for something quite different: chit-chat, gossip, and whispering about boys. That's all about making friends, and Grandin just didn't get it.
Prof. GRANDIN: Teenage years, worst part of my life. Kids teased me and called me tape recorder, because when I talked it was sort of like just using the same phrases.
HAMILTON: Over and over, without allowing other people to respond.
Grandin was like a lot of people with autism. She had no problem with the mechanics of language, but she didn't understand what was really going on when people spoke to one another. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist at UC San Diego.
Dr. V.S. RAMACHANDRAN (University of California San Diego): That's one of the hallmarks of autism, difficulty with social interaction, manifest both in spoken language and in just lack of empathy. The ability to understand other minds would be one way of describing it.
HAMILTON: Ramachandran says this ability to understand what someone else is thinking and feeling is an essential part of human language. He's not alone.
A growing number of researchers argue that the social and emotional aspects of language are at least as important as the rules for stringing words together. Ramachandran says this understanding has come not just from studying people with autism, but from a new understanding of the human brain.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: A newborn baby, you stick your tongue out at a newborn baby, the amazing thing is, very often the newborn baby will stick its tongue out.
HAMILTON: Babies are programmed to imitate. You smile, they smile. You say a word, they gurgle.
A few years ago, scientists found a biological explanation for this: specialized brain cells called mirror neurons. These neurons fire when you stick your tongue out, and when you watch someone else stick their tongue out. Mirror neurons also reflect emotions. Cells that fire when we feel pain also fire when we see pain on someone else's face. But studies suggest people with autism have faulty mirror neurons. That may be why they have trouble putting themselves in someone else's shoes.
And Ramachandran says without that ability, a lot of what you can accomplish with language disappears.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: You have to be aware of the effects that the sound streams you're producing are having on the other person's mind. Ultimately, we are Machiavellian, manipulative primates.
HAMILTON: Temple Grandin has learned to compensate for her difficulty understanding what effect her words are having on other people. Early in her career, she spoke to people on the phone instead of face to face. That way, she didn't have to worry about missing messages conveyed through eye contact or body language. But even on the phone, people may not say what they mean.
The phrase I'm fine often means just the opposite. It's pretty easy to guess how to take the remark if you know what's going on in the other person's mind. But Grandin, like many people with autism, often has no idea.
So she's taught herself to search for clues. On the phone, she realized she had to listen very closely to a person's tone of voice.
Prof. GRANDIN: When I had a client that I thought might be angry at me, I'd call him up just so I could listen to his voice. And if it had a certain little whine sound in it, then I'd go, ooh, he's still angry with me.
HAMILTON: Since then, Grandin has developed a catalogue of signals she uses to figure out what people are thinking. She checks to see if they're fidgeting during a lecture or making eye contact during a conversation, or folding their arms during an argument, social cues most of us register automatically.
Prof. GRANDIN: I always keep learning. People are always asking for the single magic breakthrough. There isn't one. I keep learning every day how my thinking and how I feel is different.
HAMILTON: So you've sort of had to intellectually try to understand emotional reactions.
Prof. GRANDIN: That's right. It's all through logic, trial and error, intellect.
HAMILTON: Intellect can only take her so far, though. She still has trouble understanding why people talk about certain things.
Prof. GRANDIN: Just a couple of years ago I went out to dinner with some salesmen. And these people were absolutely totally social. They talked for three hours for sports-themed nothing. There was no informational content in what they were talking about. It was a lot of silly jokes about the color of medication, and the color of different team mascots. It was boring for me.
HAMILTON: But important to them. The salesmen were using language as a way of bonding with one another, not exchanging information. This sort of behavior is so fundamental that it may even explain how and why humans developed language.
Bonding is something most animals do. For example, apes bond by grooming each other. And one theory has it that early humans began to augment their grooming with affectionate gestures and sounds that eventually led to primitive language.
Ramachandran says there are some gaps in that hypotheses, like how people got from grunts to grammar.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: The difficult part is to try and disentangle the notion that the emotional empathy merely plays a permissive role and gives you motivation to talk to somebody, versus an absolutely critical role in the emergence of language.
HAMILTON: Ramachandran suspects it's the latter.
That's because empathy is what allows people to understand the intention behind an action or a phrase. It's what enables us to know what words mean in a given situation. Ramachandran likes the example of a peanut. When we se someone reach for a peanut, empathy helps us decide if they intend to eat it or throw it at us. When we hear someone use a string of words, Ramachandran says, empathy tells us whether to take the words literally or figuratively. These are all distinctions for people like Grandin, who lack empathy.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Not only do they have problems understanding an action like reaching for a peanut, but also a metaphor like reaching for the stars.
HAMILTON: Dr. Temple Grandin may lack empathy, but in some ways she has reached the stars.
She holds a PhD. She writes books. She lectures on livestock handling.
Prof. GRANDIN: If you get an English version of the Bible and read modern English of Leviticus, it was all food safety and humane slaughter. Just think about what a big innovation that was, you know, back 4,000 years ago.
HAMILTON: Grandin has clearly mastered the mechanics of language. But she says she's known her whole life what language researchers are now discovering, that words alone offer only a rough translation of what other people are actually trying to say.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
KAST: What can parents do to help autistic children communicate? Temple Grandin offers her thoughts at npr.org.
And tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, the series continues, as John Hamilton profiles Ripley the Robot's efforts to learn to speak human.
This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Sheilah Kast.