Thursday, April 19, 2007

Baby Sign Language

I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, and his big subject seems to be language use by young children as evidence that the human brain is hardwired to receive and manipulate language. So I'm intrigued that he doesn't say anything about Baby Sign Language. Maybe he does, but somewhere else. Or maybe it just hasn't been studied much. I know some people think it's a symptom of overachieving parenthood, like trying to raise majestic superchildren by playing them Bach in the womb and so on. But I think it's intriguing.

The gist is that you can teach preverbal kids sign language, and there's a fledgling standard system that's partly related to ASL (why they don't simply use ASL, I don't quite get...) Anyway, you can get baby board books with signs for things like "more", "enough", "hurt", "drink", "cat", "bird" and "flower". My sister used these with her daughter, and I found it fascinating.

The biggest advantage for parents is that it allows kids to clearly express ideas like "I'm thirsty", "I'm full", "I'm still hungry", "I've had enough of this game" and "It hurts". My niece unequivocally used the signs to communicate these ideas well before her first birthday. In fact, it was during her first birthday party that she made her first identified sentence-like communication. My brother was playing the (questionably advisable) game of turning the oven light on and off for her amusement. At one point, he flicked the switch off, and she made the signs for "more" and "light" in succession.

Another thing I found interesting was that my niece used signs to "talk" to herself. We sometimes would watch her amusing herself with her toys while making signs that made sense in context (as in "Here's a kitty", "Here's a birdie").

Well before her first birthday, she clearly showed that she grasped the idea that a concept can be signified or made manifest in numerous ways. For instance, she would use the sign for "flower" to indicate different types of flowers, so she clearly reconized that a tulip, a dandelion and a rose are all "flowers", even though they don't look much alike. She also used it for pretend flowers, floral patterns on fabric, quite abstract illustrations and, on one occasion, for a whirligig on a stick.

The signs allowed windows into her personality that might otherwise have remained closed. Once she gestured inquiringly to an bandaid on my brother's finger. He said and signed that it was a hurt. The next day when he walked in, she approached him and made the hurt sign, indicating his hand, with a demeanor that seemed to suggest that she was asking, as an adult might, "How's your hurt finger"? Even if that interpretation reads too much into the situation, it's clear that she remembered the hurt the next day.

Somewhat related: I like gardens, and would frequently talk/sign to her about them. When I arrived for visits, she would often make the flower sign as soon as she saw me, showing at least that she recognized me as something like "the one who likes flowers" (I'm certain she didn't think I was a flower), and perhaps demonstrating the wish to communicate a much more sophisticated idea, like "So, Sarah, how's your garden doing?" or "Seen any nice flowers lately?"

Again, I'm no scientist, so I might well be reading too much into that interpretation – which is why I'd love to read some solid research by the Pinkers of this world on the subject.

(Photo by kahanaboy from Morguefile.)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Miraculous Survivors of Electrocution

Lots of specialized words describe how someone dies. For instance, "execution" is when someone is killed by a body or person in authority (justly or otherwise) for crimes they have actually or allegedly committed. "Asphyxiation" is when someone dies for lack of oxygen. "Decapitation" is when someone has their head cut off.*

There are also a lot of words ending in "-cide" ("homicide", "suicide", "matricide", "patricide", "regicide", "genocide", "infanticide", "pesticide", "spermicide", and so on) that specify who exactly is being offed. Wikipedia has a great list of these, of which the best is "vespacide", for the killing of wasps, which reminds me that those little scooters must have the name they do because they buzz around annoyingly. But I digress.

"Electrocution" is one of the former type, but unlike – say – "defenestration", which means "throwing or being thrown out a window", it's always fatal. To electrocute someone is to kill them by administering a lethal dose of electricity. A non-lethal dose of electricity is just an electric shock, not an electrocution. So be skeptical next time someone tells you they were electrocuted when they took the fuzzy blankets out of the dryer.

*The same word applies in French, and figures in one of my all-time favourite gruesome Montreal tabloid headlines: "Decapitée en cherchant le corps de son fils", about a woman whose head was skimmed off by a wire while she was snowmobiling in the dark in search of her son's body. He had gone through thin ice on another snowmobile, I think: a quintessential Quebec tragedy.