If people believe that people who do not talk do not think, they will believe that they have nothing to contribute. People look at facilitated communication users and think that they learned to think only after getting the means to communicate. They are working under the assumption that the only way to learn language is through interaction. I use ideas from Harvard neurologist Steven Pinker, studies of gifted children, and other evidence to demonstrate that people likely use language from the earliest moments of infancy, even before they can talk.
In this paper, I will discuss how people can learn to use language in the absence of communication. People look at facilitated communication users and think that they humbly learned to think only after getting the means to communicate. They are working under the assumption that the only way to learn language is through interaction. I will use ideas from Harvard neurologist Steven Pinker, studies of gifted children, and other evidence to demonstrate that people likely use language from the earliest moments of infancy, even before they can talk. Therefore, learning to communicate is not necessary for learning language. If people believe that people who do not talk do not think, they will believe that they have nothing to contribute. This is a part of disability oppression that must be put forth for more study.
Facilitated communication (FC) users are people who cannot speak and have trouble controlling their body movements. Without support from a facilitator who helps us to stabilize our bodies, we cannot point where we want. Unable to communicate and demonstrate our intelligence, even by pointing, we are labeled profoundly intellectually impaired. With support, we can type with one finger on a keyboard and access communication.
There has been controversy about FC: detractors claim that the facilitator rather than the FC user authors the words. This harms people who can only communicate with support, by casting aspersion on our ability and jeopardizing our access to the support we need. Sufficiently many people who started with FC now type independently, and more than enough studies have validated FC, so that FC should no longer be seen as controversial (Biklen, 8-9).
The skepticism of FC detractors has stemmed in part from their assumption that people who cannot talk cannot have learned language and cannot think. They wonder how an adolescent or adult who is given access to FC for the first time can, as happens in many cases, start typing intelligibly right away. For example:
Does FC enable individuals with disabilities to produce messages that are unquestionably their own or are there simpler, more plausible explanations? In FC, two individuals are involved in creating messages by selecting letters to spell words. Prior to their introduction to FC, one of those persons has displayed limited, if any, ability to read, spell, and express abstract concepts through any mode. Typically, this individual has mental retardation… (Green and Shane, 153)
People have thought that thinking requires language. I agree, but they are wrong that language needs communication. They are working under the assumption that the only way to learn language is through interaction. For example, Jean Piaget believed that children learn language (logic too) by talking. He argued that they learn through having grown-ups talk with them (Piaget 1981, ch. 8).
On the other hand, Steven Pinker, a neurologist from Harvard, looks at things differently. His theory is thinking in language is built into the human brain. He justifies his belief by giving the following evidence.
Pinker argues that children learn at least some abstract concepts before they limp into speech. For example, infants looking at Mickey Mouse dolls look longer if the number is not what they expect:
The developmental psychologist Karen Wynn has recently shown that five-month-old babies can do a simple form of mental arithmetic…In Wynn's experiment, the babies were shown a rubber Mickey Mouse doll on a stage until their little eyes wandered. Then a screen came up, and a prancing hand visibly reached out from behind a curtain and placed a second Mickey Mouse behind the screen. When the screen was removed, if there were two Mickey Mouses visible (something the babies had never actually seen), the babies looked for only a few moments. But if there was only one doll, the babies were captivated—even though this was exactly the scene that had bored them before the screen was put into place. Wynn also tested a second group of babies, and this time, after the screen came up to obscure a pair of dolls, a hand visibly reached behind the screen and removed one of them. If the screen fell to reveal a single Mickey, the babies looked briefly. If it revealed the old scene with two, the babies had more trouble tearing themselves away. The babies must have been keeping track of how many dolls were behind the screen, updating their counts as dolls were added or subtracted. If the number inexplicably departed from what they expected, they scrutinized the scene, as if searching for some explanation. (Pinker 1994, 59)
Thinking does not need communication. In Pinker's book, he motions to the idea that people learn grammar before they start speaking. I might not be able to talk, but I think grammatically perfectly. The mostly believable idea that grammar is learned through talking is not true.
Pinker's second clue is how people think in different languages. He shows that not only do we learn grammar in the absence of talking, but it is possible to learn multiple grammars this way. Linguistical knowledge is not predicated on knowing how to talk in the language.
In thinking about how people learn to read in the absence of communication, it is useful to look at studies on how gifted children learn to read. In an article called "Children Teach Themselves to Read," the people interviewed could read young by teaching themselves (Gray, 2010). Thinking about how they do that helps us to understand how you can legitimately get literacy with no communication.
People think that young people learn by being taught. But they can teach themselves. Looking at books is only one ploy. Other ways include playing with alphabet blocks, hearing their parents helping their brothers and sisters, looking at labels and signs, and, too, television.
There are lots of studies permitting us to know how gifted children learn (Cunningham, 2006; Aldridge and Rust, 1987; Price, 1976). But listening to facilitated communication users is apparently not valid. Hopefully, people who are interested in literacy will start to notice that we know how we learned.
Judging from Pinker, not making too many guesses from only the experiences of typical children but looking how children like me learned to use language, then one can see that people learn language in the absence of communication.
However, I must not limit the usefulness of communication. I propose that only people who cannot talk learn language mostly by thinking in place of by communication. People who talk mostly learn language by talking. I think that the ability to talk makes people learn thinking differently. If one cannot talk, then the ability to learn lots of things in the absence of communication kicks in.
I might begin by pointing out that people like me jump (that is my term for when my body starts performing actions I do not intend) when people look numerous. To many people you look like mimicking, but I might learn things. (I mean that when there are people around, I look like I might be copying them, but I might be learning.) I now know how to read because I looked at things people were reading.
I might also point out that people might not look like they pay attention but they learn things. You might just not know they are learning. People like me jump lots, but my learning has been going on.
I believe my knowledge of language lies in listening to people talk. I learned to use language in my head before I began communicating. But having communication helps me think more clearly. I might not be making sense in my head. Communication means I get feedback.
I got my means of communication later than most people. But people know how to think in their heads before they learn to talk.
- Aldridge, Jerry and Debra Rust. 1987. "Young Children Teach Themselves to Read and Write." Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 15, No. 2: 29-31.
- Biklen, Douglas. 2005. Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone (New York: New York University Press).
- Cunningham, Anne E. 2006. "Accounting for children's orthographic learning while reading text: Do children self-teach?" Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 95: 56-77.
- Gray, Peter. 2010. "Children Teach Themselves to Read." Psychology Today (view online at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/node/38752).
- Green, Gina and Howard Shane. 1994. "Science, Reason, and Facilitated Communication." Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, Vol. 19, No. 3: 151-172.
- Piaget, Jean. 1981 (1947). The Psychology of Intelligence, trans. Malcolm Piercy and D. E. Berlyne (Totowa, New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams & Co.).
- Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct (New York: William Morrow and Co.).
- Price, Eunice. 1976. "How Thirty-Seven Gifted Children Learned to Read." Reading Teacher, Vol. 30, No. 1 (October): 44-48.