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Radiolab’s Words: The Evolution Of Sign Language

Throughout the many years, communication has developed and evolved into such a wonderful thing. With just sounds coming out of our mouths, lines written down, hand motions, etc. we can express what is going through our minds to someone else so that they can understand. Communication using words inevitably means language which is sounds or symbols used to exchange information. Radiolab’s “Words” podcast went into depth on how words or symbols used to communicate.

There was a research that was conducted with rats and put into a rectangular room to find something in the corner. it could be anything that was in the corner but the rats were always confused. Then they made one of the walls blue so that it can be used as a reference point such as “the object is left of blue wall”. However, the results were that the rats could only find the object 50% of the time even with the reference. This whole concept was astonishing to me because something so simple such as direction of a reference is so complicated.

Rats simply cannot process the two things and put them together. humans who can’t speak properly or usually under the age of 6 can’t process the two things together as well because they haven’t developed as much of a language needed to compute this. With this experiment and conclusions coming from this, it widened my view on how amazing language is. The Radiolab Commenters said how connecting two things such as the direction left and a blue wall doesn’t occur until around but once it does, so many other things start to click.

Since the mind at a young age is so easily moldable, learning about things and connecting them is much easier than later in adulthood if they were to go through some brain damage or other reasons. I’m not sure how much of a person’s capability of language can change when they become deaf compared to when they were born deaf since there were already a base. I don’t have a reading or writing impairment yet struggled a lot while learning a new language (Japanese). I’m assuming that since I already had a base (English), all I had to do was think of an object and its label such as a door and just replace the word for it.

Knowing what something is and trying to convert it to a different language is the closest thing i could think of similar to a person learning sign language. Another experiment that was conducted which was discussed in this episode was how some of the few original people who went to deaf school was compared to newer generations of kids going to deaf school as well. They had to explain what they felt about a short video they saw. It turned out the the older generation of people using sign language was using full body movements and only described actions but younger generations used movements with just the wrist and described thinking.

This fascinated me on how sign language has changed and been developed into a more sophisticated way to communicate with each other. I would’ve thought that it was the other way around with the older generation describing with more thought compared to the new generation dimming it down. My friend’s mom said that while she was growing up and went to school, she said English class was much harder compared to now because of how strict and precise everything had to be. I can see how now it became more relaxed during my freshman year of English when I had a lot of free writing.

There was another experiment similar to the one I stated earlier about how the younger generation and the older generation of kids were compared when watching to describe how a guy was thinking a small event took place. It happened to be that the older generation and kids below the age of 6 couldn’t comprehend what the guy was thinking about logically but the younger generation of kids using sign could. To me, this all made me think about the rat experiment and how they haven’t found a certain label for things and to create the connections between the two.

These islands of ideas one day clicked for all people yet some more than others. What amazes me is that language is so closely correlated to knowledge and thinking yet I never really thought about it in that way. It was always learning new words to broaden my vocabulary and to express or describe what I’m thinking, which is just amplified when learning sign language when you’re deaf. The whole idea of how communication is used brings it back to a biological perspective.

The majority of our communication roots back to our ideas or thoughts and how we want others to perceive or understand what we want to portray. For example, my first language was cambodian and so there was this language barrier during my first few years of elementary school because i couldn’t communicate with my teachers or peers easily what i wanted. This is somewhat how i can relate to a kid learning sign language but being deaf wasn’t a choice. Another things that i really find interesting is how people when they are younger can learn a language easier than adulthood.

Our brains at a younger age unconsciously absorb information easier than during adulthood because of how our brain chemistry works. This leads me to think would it be better if someone were to go deaf at around the age of 6 compared to going deaf at 18? Wouldn’t there lives not change as much learning sign language at a younger age compared to learning it at an older age? Furthermore, communication isn’t just expressing labels, but connecting two or more ideas to create and express your thoughts.

From a biological perspective, i have noticed that there is a fine line between people who can easily pick up a language and people who don’t which could lead to academic downfall during language class in school. Personally i struggled learning japanese in highschool and i think it’s because of my situation. I wasn’t forced to go to japan and learn the language on the spot. That type of situation would have made me more motivated and urge to learn the language for my survival needs. Although expressing words may seem like a simple concept, it can reach out to behaviors, belief, feelings and actions.

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