22 , 2002
Alan watches a little girl interact with Sam, a virtual playmate
who "shares" a special dollhouse with his human companions.
An example of "underdetermined design," technology that encourages
children to construct their own imaginary worlds, Sam is the
brainchild of Dr. Justine Cassell. Cassell, director of the
Gesture and Narrative Language Research Group at MIT's Media
Lab, uses technology to understand how children acquire language,
as well as what impact language has on their psychology. FRONTIERS
asked Cassell what she herself was like as a child.
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FRONTIERS: What were your interests as a child?
was very interested in biology and natural sciences but I
was really bad at math. I wanted to be a doctor. It was making
sense to me that I'd make a good doctor, but it was making
less sense that I would make a good medical student.
There was no way to find out what this love of words
was. Then, in my sophomore year, I realized what I loved
was the science of language.
was born pretty much a word person. I was asking questions
about words even as I was learning how to talk. By the time
I was seven or eight, I kept a wordbook in which I would write
good words. My parents would say, "Now, why is that a good
word?" and I would say, "It just is." One of them was "sphygmomanometer,"
what they take your blood pressure with. Another was "floccilation."
That means the anxious picking at dust on the bedclothes done
by an ill person. I just loved words, and as I grew older
I loved writing and I stayed up all night and read novels
trying to finish them in one night.
parents recognized that I was not a mainstream learner. They
sent me to an experimental school: St. Ann's in Brooklyn Heights,
NY. Instead of grades, you got long reports every quarter.
Mine would say things like, "If Justine paid attention she
might understand what was going on." Which is much more damning
than a B! I'm still in touch with the teachers and I still
feel like that's the place that allowed me to know that you
can pursue knowledge for its own sake. That you don't need
to live inside disciplinary boundaries.
did you become a linguist? What did you study to become one?
I went to Dartmouth College, I kept taking biology, chemistry,
and math and I kept doing badly in them. I also kept taking
English and Comparative Literature and did well in those.
We didn't have a Linguistics Department at Dartmouth, so there
was no way to find out what this love of words was. I just
thought it was a love of language that went along with the
love of literature. Then, in my sophomore year, I took a class
on the history of the English language and I realized what
I loved was the science of language. I loved especially how
children learn language.
Cassell with the animated actor REA,
the real estate agent.
this wonderful class, I went to [the University of Besancon
in France for two years]. They had a very highly thought-of
Linguistics Department. At the end of my first semester, my
professor said, "Whatever you choose to do in your life, you
were born to do linguistics." I had found my calling.
I went to do a Masters in Linguistics at the University of
Edinburgh. When I arrived and told them that I wanted to look
at the linguistics of literary texts on the one hand, and
of children's language on the other, they very quickly said,
"That's not linguistics." For my thesis, I looked at how children
acquired the art of storytelling. It wasn't mainstream, certainly.
And they certainly let me know that.
So I went off to the University of Chicago to do a Ph.D. in
psychology. As soon as I arrived, I told them I wanted to
continue my work in looking at how children learn how to become
storytellers, and they very quickly told me that that was
not psychology. I decided that what I needed to do was get
a Ph.D. in both linguistics and psychology. That way, no one
could tell me that I wasn't one of them.
studied linguistic devices in children's storytelling. I began
to work with David McNeil who studied gesture. So I began
to look at children's gestures while they told stories, which
turned out to be a wonderful way to learn about what is going
on in their minds, in a way that a language alone couldn't
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