Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Tonight's Brief But Spectacular essay features psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason.

She's a professor emeritus at Boston University, and is best known as the creator of a test that helped to transform what we know about children's language.

Jean Berko Gleason: I have an intolerance for certain things, yes, intolerance for rudeness, actually.

I don't like it when people make noises eating things, and I never stay in the house if anybody is eating soft boiled eggs, because soft boiled eggs are an abomination.

Anybody who knows me knows that I really love technology. I have streaming cameras in my house that I set up. I installed my own video doorbell. I do all of those things. So I'm in my kitchen one day, and a woman rang the doorbell, and she said she wanted to get ahold of the neighbor next door, if she could send him a message.

So I pulled my Pixel out of my pocket. And this young woman turned to me and said: "Look at you with your smartphone."

And I was just appalled. I was just appalled that she would talk to me that way.

And I said: "What?"

And she said: "Well, well, well, my mother wouldn't know how to use a smartphone."

And I said: "Well, I do have a Ph.D. from Harvard."

And that shut her up.

I was fascinated by language as a child, because I was under the impression that whatever you said meant something in some language. My brother Marty was 6 years older than me, and he had cerebral palsy. He was so smart that, ultimately, he got a Ph.D. From Cornell.

But when he was little, and even when he wasn't little, he had trouble speaking such that other people could understand him. I was the person who always understood what he said. So I felt some closeness with language, as well as with my brother.

Other people didn't appreciate the fact that he was a sensitive, intelligent person. In fact, a lot of people with disabilities have this problem. People see that they have trouble walking or talking, and they assume that they have no intellectual capacity.

He wasn't treated with the respect he deserved, and he felt that acutely.

I didn't start out to study psycholinguistics. I started out to study a million languages, because I loved them. I do speak Norwegian, French, Russian, bits and pieces of Arabic, German, enough Spanish to get dinner.

OK, if we're going to talk about this little creature that's on me, it's called a Wug. It comes from a study I did a very long time ago, called The Wug Test.

Steve, why don't you come over here, and we will practice on you and see if you can pass The Wug Test?

This is a man who knows how to bing, OK? He is binging. He did the same thing yesterday. What did he do yesterday? Yesterday, he…

Steve Goldbloom: Binged.

Jean Berko Gleason: That is a perfect child answer, OK? Four-year-olds will say that.

Steve Goldbloom: Great.

Jean Berko Gleason: I created The Wug Test to try to find out if even young children have internal systems of grammar that allow them to deal with words they have never heard before.

I think that it's very important that children acquire language in a loving atmosphere. Kids need to have some kind of one-on-one relationship with other people, so that they care.

If we care to communicate with them, we want them to care to communicate with us.

My name is Jean Berko Gleason, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on language.

Judy Woodruff: Thank you, Jean Berko Gleason.

And you can find more Brief But Spectacular essays on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.