[lg policy] book review: The Signs of a Savant: Language Against the Odds

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Sep 11 16:25:59 UTC 2011

The Signs of a Savant

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/21/21-5036.html

AUTHORS: Neil Smith, Ianthi Tsimpli, Gary Morgan, and Bencie Woll
TITLE: The Signs of a Savant
SUBTITLE: Language Against the Odds
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2011

Diane Brentari, Professor of Linguistics, University of Chicago


''The Signs of a Savant'' is a fascinating, extended case study of one
whose name is Christopher (henceforth referred to as C.). He can be considered a
'language savant,' described by the authors as someone with ''a startling talent
[for learning languages] in a sea of inability'' (p.1). He can read, write,
speak, understand, and translate more than 20 languages, despite his other
inabilities. If ''The Signs of a Savant'' were merely a description of
this unique
case, linguists would still be interested in reading about C., but if you are
wondering what one individual case with a combination of idiosyncratic abilities
can contribute to our general understanding of important issues concerning
language and the mind, let me assure you that ''The Signs of a Savant'' offers
penetrating insights into our understanding of the language faculty, theories of
modularity, the structure of memory, as well as the structure of sign languages.

The perspective taken in this work is current generative theory (Chomsky 1981,
1995, 2002, and 2009) and a quasi-modular theory of cognition (Tsimpli & Smith
1998), which shares many aspects of Fodor's modular theory (1975, 1983), but
also those of Sperber and Wilson (1986, 1995) for theories of relevance, as well
as Baddeley's work on memory (2007). The general claim about C.'s abilities is
that he has an intact language faculty, as defined by Chomsky, but some serious
impairments in other cognitive components, such as visual cognition, memory, and
pragmatics, along with a lack of the cultural encyclopedic knowledge that most
learners bring to the language learning task. Even though the etiology of C.'s
case is hardly straightforward, a combination of autism along with a possible
diagnosis of hydrocephaly, the care with which the data on C. was collected and
presented here makes it possible to obtain powerful evidence in favor of a
generativist perspective on the language faculty as well as concerning the
substance of that language faculty.

This particular work is a report of the authors' attempt to teach C. British
Sign Language (BSL). Several other works about C. address the general nature of
his abilities -- both his general mental abilities (Smith and Tsimpli 1995) and
language abilities (Smith et al. 1993). In this review I will focus primarily on
insights gained from observing C.'s BSL abilities, but since this was one step
in a series of research efforts, a description of some of the other abilities
that were uncovered while observing C. learning spoken and written languages can
often provide background and context for the more specific BSL findings. For
example, it is helpful for readers to know that in virtually all of C.'s
languages the following are true: his comprehension abilities exceed his
production abilities, his ability to learn complex morphology exceeds his
ability to learn syntactic generalizations that concern resetting parameters,
and he has difficulty using pragmatic knowledge in learning languages. Since the
authors were not privy to the manner in which C. learned most of the languages
he uses, the work reported in Smith et al. (1993) was helpful in contextualizing
C.s learning experience with BSL. The pattern of learning regular complex
morphology, as long as it was possible to learn the system via print, was
evidenced in his acquisition of Berber. Smith et al. (1993) reported on C.'s
learning of Berber, and but even considering the caveats above, his performance
was quite impressive. In contrast, C.s ability to learn Epun, an invented
language, which contained some impossible patterns, was quite poor. The
generalizations concerning his language skills and the extensive battery of
tests demonstrating C.s difficulties with memory and visuo-spatial tasks set the
stage for the BSL results.

The methods used to teach C. BSL were meticulous and similar in important ways
to the methods used in Smith et al. (1993). Instruction consisted of a limited
number of contact hours -- 12 hours of lessons plus 12 more hours of casual
conversations. The authors chose to focus primarily on 4 areas of BSL grammar:
iconic vs. non-iconic signs, classifiers, negation, and verb agreement. Word
order and Wh-questions were also taught to C., but the results were relatively
inconclusive since he omitted some signs in his productions, making
interpretation difficult. Each of the 4 primary areas of instruction was chosen
to address specific hypotheses considered by the authors. Drawing on the methods
used to teach C. Berber and Epun, the researchers chose a control group of
learners in the 90 percentile of language learning abilities with which to
compare C. as he learned BSL. This step allowed the authors to determine if his
pattern of learning BSL was similar to or different from the control group in
terms of pace and mastery. And, just as they had done in describing C.'s profile
of general cognitive abilities, the team also designed a number of tests
tailored to test their hypotheses, which were administered to C. and the control
group whenever possible.

Given that C. has difficulties with visual cognition, memory, and spatial
relations, it was hypothesized that he would have difficulty learning iconic
signs, and this was indeed confirmed. While the control group of second language
learners acquired iconic signs more readily than non-iconic ones at this early
stage of BSL instruction, C. acquired signs that were non-iconic more readily.
And when asked to invent signs for common objects, he invented signs that seemed
not to take advantage of visual iconicity. I wish to point out that young
children acquiring BSL as a first language do not show a preference for learning
iconic signs either, but C. is not an L1 learner, and yet at this early stage of
learning BSL when the control group of second language learners was taking
advantage of visual iconicity, C. did not do so.

Because C. has problems with spatial relations and iconicity, it was
hypothesized that he would have difficulty learning classifiers, and indeed this
was the case. Part of his difficulty may stem from his severe apraxia. He could
use a map, but he almost never used signing space to set up landmarks when
requested to do so, and was unable to provide directions using classifier
predicates. He was able to comprehend classifier structures more adeptly than
produce them, but even in comprehension, compared with the control group, his
comprehension in this area was severely impaired. On two tests designed to test
classifier comprehension by using picture pointing as a response, C. obtained
scores of 10% and 20% while the control group obtained mean scores of 72% and
89%, respectively.

Also in the area of verb agreement and associated pronominal signs, his
difficulties with spatial relations were predicted to present an obstacle, and
this also turned out to be the case. One of the main problems was that C. was
unable to perform the mental rotation of signing space required to reproduce the
correct verb agreement. He would sign YOU-GIVE-ME rather than target I-GIVE-YOU,
which is an identical copy of the movement of the tutor rather than the correct
rotated form. Surprisingly, though, he was better able to correctly produce
object agreement than subject agreement. The interpretation of this result by
the authors is that object agreement is obligatory, while the combination of
morphological and syntactic factors, such as pro-drop, make subject-agreement
optional, and therefore less regular. Since C.s difficulties with verb agreement
seemed to stem from this rotation problem, but also included some areas where he
performed fairly well (and certainly better than with classifiers), the authors
conclude that verb agreement is not a natural extension of gesture, as some sign
language researchers claim.

These are three areas where C. had difficulties learning BSL with respect to the
control group. He has been shown to be extremely adept with learning complex
morphology, so it was hypothesized that simultaneous morphology that was not
based in any way on spatial relations might be one area where C. would excel.
This turned out to be true for the use of the negative headshake. By the end of
the instruction period, C. performed as well as the control group in the use of
the negative headshake that was produced simultaneously with the verb as a
negation marker. However, he had more difficulty using negation when it was a
lexical process. For example, in BSL DON'T-KNOW, DON'T-LIKE, and DON'T-WANT are
signs that have a different negative marker; i.e., a movement involving the
twisting of the wrist outward from the place of articulation. C. had difficulty
with these forms. The authors argue that C. was able to learn the 'regular'
morphological use of the negative headshake, but not the more irregular
lexicalized form.

The penultimate chapter of the book includes a comparison of C.'s BSL abilities
with those of other groups of atypical signers, including aphasic signers,
signers on the autistic spectrum (both autistic signers and one with Asperger's
Syndrome), signers with Williams Syndrome, and one signer with cerebellar
disturbance. C.'s autism and his motor problems (potentially associated with a
cerebellar disturbance due to hydrocephaly), his inability to use pragmatics,
and his visuo-spatial difficulties were very similar to groups that had
previously been studied. For example, like C., right hemisphere damaged signers
have difficulty with 'topographical space' -- when signs are used for mapping
out space as space -- as opposed to 'grammatical space' -- when signs are used
to index entities present and non present in the discourse.


This work makes a very strong case for a distinction between gesture and sign.
There is a great deal of work in the functionalist tradition drawing research
attention to the connections between gesture and sign. C.'s performance is
counter-evidence to such work since his performance on gesture was very poor
compared with his BSL abilities. For example, he scored very poorly on the
Kimura test of non-representational gesture (Kimura 1982). The case of C.
reinforces the finding that gesture abilities can be very impaired while signing
abilities are not. The authors' comparison of C. with Heather, a young Deaf
woman with specific visuo-spatial impairments reminiscent of Williams Syndrome,
is especially informative (Atkinson et al. 2002). Her signing is similar to
C.'s: language abilities in BSL well in advance of her visuo-spatial abilities
and a disassociation within BSL grammar between devices that depend on
grammatical processes involving space and those that do not.

This is a book for anyone interested in languages or the mind more generally. It
was fortunate that the authors had contact with C. over such a long period of
time so that they could share with us this detailed picture of an extremely
interesting case of a language savant. Moreover, it is engagingly written, even
as it is packed with detailed information. I highly recommend this book for
anyone interested in memory, atypical learners, sign language, or cognition.


Atkinson, Jo Bencie Woll, & Susan Gathercole. 2002. The impact of developmental
visuospatial learning difficulties on British Sign Language. Neurocase
8. 424-441.

Baddeley, Alan. 2007. Working Memory, Thought, and Action. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding: the Pisa Lectures.
Dordrecht: Foris.

Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 2002. On Nature and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 2009. Opening remarks. In M. Piattelli-Palmarini, J Uriagereka &
P. Salaburn (eds.) Of Minds and Language: A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the
Basque Country, pp. 13-43. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 2009. Conclusion. In M. Piattelli-Palmarini, J. Uriagereka & P.
Salaburn (eds.) Of Minds and Language: A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the
Basque Country, pp. 379-409. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fodor, Jerry. 1975. The Language of Thought. New York: Corwell.

Fodor, Jerry. 1983. The Modularity of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Smith, Neil, Ianthi. Tsimpli, & J. Ouhalla. 1993. Learning the impossible: The
acquisition of possible and impossible languages by a polyglot savant. Lingua
91. 279-347.

Smith, Neil & Ianthi. Tsimpli. 1995. The Mind of a Savant: Language Learning and
Modularity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sperber, Deirdre & Dan Wilson. 1986/1995. Relevance: Communication and
Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Tsimpli, Ianthi & Neil Smith. 1998. Modules and quasi-modules: Language and
theory of mind in a polyglot savant. Learning and Individual Differences 10.


Diane Brentari is Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics
at the University of Chicago. She has published 'A Prosodic Model of Sign
Language Phonology' (MIT, 1998), 'Foreign Vocabulary in Sign Languages'
(Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001) and 'Sign Languages: A Cambridge
Language Survey' (Cambridge University Press, 2010). She is currently
collaborating with researchers in Europe and Asia to address
cross-linguistic differences in sign language phonology and morphology, as
well as the relationship between gesture, homesign systems and sign languages.


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