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Ask Jean Your Questions

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Jean Berko Gleason is ready to answer your questions. And everyone who uses the words “hi,” “thanks,” and “goodbye” goes to the front of the line!

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Q: “Smitha”.

Hi Jean,
I have a two-year-old boy and it seems to me that being tough is the only way to get his attention. I make an effort to switch ‘no’ with ‘please’ every time I speak to him. But, he still needs a stern warning. My question is, are parents responding to differences in behavior of boys and girls when they are being tough or sensitive in their language?
Thank you for your time,

A: Jean Berko Gleason

Hi You raise a very good point, and there are two answers (at least) to why parents in comparable situations speak more gently to girls than to boys.

1. We all tailor our speech to the person we are talking to in many ways. Children have different temperaments, probably inborn, though they can learn to become somewhat less shy or somewhat less bold, etc. A very adventurous child (boy or girl) may need to be spoken to in a way that gets his or her attention. And its always possible that more such children are boys. If your son were a little girl behaving the same way, we don’t know how you’d speak. But see #2

2. Research has shown that parents have very different expectations and beliefs about their children even before they get to know them, based on the sex of the kid. For instance, parents of comparable newborns (same size, Apgar score, etc.) believed that their sons were tough little guys and their daughters were delicate little beauties. In our own research on the ‘no no no’s’, the kids were in baby chair/tables doing the same things. So there may be some differences from the outset, but our society enhances them, or maybe even creates them.

What does that say about your speech to your son? Obviously, you can’t let him run into the street and there are times when you have to get through to him. He may have a bold temperament, but not necessarily because he is a boy.

Q: Mark R.

Hi Jean,

I am an undergraduate linguistics student and you are one of my personal heroes and I want to say that I own a Wug t-shirt.
In my education thus far, I have only had brief exposure to the idea of language centers in the brain, and that was mixed with a strong opposition to the idea that they really exist.
What can you tell us about the language centers of the brain? Are we able to point to any areas and say, definitively, that it is a language center? Any recent studies?

Thank you for your work, over your whole lifetime.

A: Jean Berko Gleason

Hi Mark

Thanks for the kind words and the interesting question. The classic localization models were based on correlations between observed disturbances in language and lesion sites in the brain, usually found at autopsy. That’s how Broca was able to claim that ‘articulate speech’ was related to the part of the left hemisphere at the foot of the motor strip that is now called Broca’s area. Damage to Broca’s area then, and now, produces a particular type of aphasia.

Two other areas of the brain that are known to be involved with language because damage to them produces distinctive aphasias are Wernicke’s area (near the auditory association areas of the left hemisphere) and the arcuate fasciculus, a band of subcortical fibers connecting Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area.

There are a lot of neuroimaging techniques now that make it possible to see and relate symptoms and damage in living people. Perhaps it is too strong a statement to say the areas I mentioned are ‘language centers’ if that implies that language is somehow IN them. But they are involved with processing language. The brain is pretty flexible, though, and if something happens to the left hemisphere in a child, the right can take over. We build our brains through experience, and when we acquire language our neural architecture is such that particular parts of our brains end up with a lot of language-related connections. You can call those centers or areas.

I hope this makes sense..



Q: Wendy O.

Hi Jean

I enjoyed your driving video very much! I too am old and I too enjoy driving. There is some intense kinesthetic pleasure in it. I also drive a Suburu with turbo. Those are wonderful moments, aren’t they, when one puts on a burst of speed to merge effortlessly with freeway traffic or to pass.
I also loved your anecdote about the shock of the boys as they saw who was behind the wheel. There is an interesting discrepancy between one’s subjective experience and the way one is viewed by others.


A: Jean Berko Gleason

Hi Wendy,

Thanks for the note..and I’m glad I’m not alone. A couple of weeks ago I was putting gas in my car at the Big Apple in Bridgton, Maine, and I was approached by a young man who asked if my car was turbo powered, and when I said it was, he told me all about the car he was customizing (block size, horsepower, etc.) so just having a snappy car gives you some street cred. So let’s keep having fun driving! And destroying stereotypes.

Q: Mark W.

Do “Spoonerisms” come in all flavors (languages)?

A: Jean Berko Gleason

Hi So far as I know, they do, and although people used to think that children didn’t make them, they do. Spoonerisms are a particular kind of speech error in which parts of words are transposed, often resulting in embarrassing or funny utterances. My favorite is the lab assistant who said “Oh, dear, I broke the whistle on my crotch” when he meant he had broken the crystal on his watch. There is a wonderful book on this subject of speech errors/linguistic slips by Victoria Fromkin, called Errors in Linguistic Performance.

Q: “Kfunk937”

Hi, Dr. Gleason. Would you give us a thumbnail sketch of where you’re going with psycholinguistics currently in your work?

A: Jean Berko Gleason

Currently we are investigating young children’s vocabulary (lexicon) and relating it both to their own cognitive and dispositional tendencies and to what is said to them by adults. In a recent publication, for instance, we showed that even very young children (like 2 year olds) have some remarkably rare words in their vocabularies. These are typically animal names, like ‘zebra’ and ‘crocodile’. This is at least in part because of biophilia, our intense interest in the world of living things. We are lucky that we have databases of transcripts from hundreds of children to analyze. Right now we are looking at what parents are calling children’s attention to (again using data from hundreds of children). We are able to search the transcripts and pull out all of the places where someone says to a little child: ‘Look at the….’ or ‘See the..)
Thus far there is a remarkable overlap between this set of things parents point out and children’s early vocabulary.

Q: Lorraine

Hi Jean: what effect do you think ‘texting’ will have on our language? When I text my college aged son – the typical response is ‘yeahhh, LOL, me too”. And that’s a positive response. It seems their generation has forgotten every spelling rule. Long term effects? Thank you. Goodbye. Lorraine

A: Jean Berko Gleason

Hi Lorraine Thanks for the interesting question. Texting is taking up a lot of young people’s time these days and I think there are good things and bad things about it: on the good side, it is a particular genre, new to our times, in which people are learning to be very succinct in getting their message across. In my day we had to learn to write telegrams. The negative side is that it may be replacing other kinds of written communication that are still important in our society. So I’d want to be sure that young people are also learning to write essays, anecdotes, lab reports, haiku, letters to the editor, etc. Spell checkers take care of spelling these days, but it is really important for kids to get experience talking in many different kinds of settings and for them to learn to write not just text messages but cogent documents of many varieties… Jean

Q: James K.

Good Morning Ms. Gleason. I am a 67 year old Security person at a middle school. I am interested in how the English Language developed. I believe modern may have come from a proto-language to which Sanskrit is the closest. Many diverse languages share words that seem to derive from Sanskrit. An example is “Ma” for mother. Even Chinese uses this word for mother. A coincidence or not?

A: Jean Berko Gleason

Hello, James You ask some very interesting questions. People in the fields of comparative and historical linguistics noticed a couple hundred years ago that there were similar words in ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. This led to the conclusion that they had a common ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, which most scholars believe is the origin of all of the Indo-European languages including Sanskrit. Sanskrit was always a scholarly language, probably not spoken much. Instead, there was a more commonly used language called Prakrit that is the language that many languages in India have descended from. English is descended from a different branch of the Indo-European tree and has more in common with the languages of Europe (it’s a Germanic language).
But your comment about the word ‘ma’ in many languages is great–it is true that all over the world babies early words include things like ‘mama’ and ‘papa’. My guess is that this is not because the languages are related historically but because babies (like many creatures) make certain sounds naturally when they babble, or, for instance, when they are hungry. A hungry baby may say ‘mamamama’ and adults may seize upon this natural baby utterance and give it meaning, ‘Like here’s your mama!’

Q: Jessie

Where did you live when you were a little girl?

A: Jean Berko Gleason

Hi Jessie My parents were Hungarians who came to Cleveland before I was born. When I was little we lived in Cleveland, and then Cleveland Heights a bit later. Jean

Q: David C.

What kind of car did you drive when you were a kid?

A: Jean Berko Gleason

Hi David… I got my driver’s license when I was 16 and at that time got to drive my family’s car, which was a quite terrible Nash, one of the first post-World War II models. I drove my mother to Washington DC the following summer and the car rattled and shook the whole way. Jean

Q: Ms. Naymark’s Class

Hi! My students enjoyed watching your videos and had many questions for you. Here are some of them:

1. How did you come up with wugs?
2. What language would you still like to learn?
3. Do you every mix up two languages?
4. What is your favorite word?
5. What is the most interesting study you have every been a part of?
6. How many different ethnic groups of children have you worked with while studying language development?
7. Have you ever driven on the Autobahn in Germany?
8. What is your dream car?

Thank you for answering our questions!

A: Jean Berko Gleason

Hi everyone! I’ll try to answer your questions briefly
1. Wugs: the actual word ‘wug’ was one I made up, out of my head, to be like common words like ‘dog’ or ‘rug’ etc. Then I had to draw them.
2. Language: I’d love to learn Chinese. It’s one of the world’s major languages (well, there is more than one Chinese language), and it would be great to be able to speak it, even a little.
3. Mixup: No, I don’t have a problem. I think our brains keep languages separate unless we want to mix them–like sometimes people say things like “Hi Chica, como estas? What’s up?” on purpose.
4. My favorite words have p’s and k’s in them. Like ‘pumpernickel’. (Which I don’t like to eat.) If you ask little kids what their favorite words are they tell you their favorite things, like ‘candy’. I also like ‘kelp’ and ‘alpaca’. As words.
5. Study: Halloween. We once did a study in which we recorded what kids, parents, and people at home said on Halloween when the children went treat or treating. We did this on 3 Halloweens and got lots of data. We found that parents of 4-year-olds really want their children to get it right, so they sometimes stand on the sidewalk and say ‘Don’t forget to say Trick or Treat and thank you!”
6. Ethnicity: Working in the greater Boston area we’ve always had children of many different backgrounds in our studies, so I can’t count. But I have also done a lot of research in Hungary with Hungarian Gypsy (Roma) families. These kids usually spoke a Romani language as well as Hungarian.
7. Autobahn: Oh, yes. I have, and I’ve had the experience of going really fast (I thought) only to have a BMW zoom up behind me, flash its lights, and then pass at about 120 mph.
8. Dream car. It would be easy to say same fancy fast car that exists, but what I would really like is a dream car: one that has lots of zip and nimbleness, seats 4 or 5 comfortably, has room for my things. And is solar powered!

Cheers and bye


Q: “Free4m”

Is it true that Sanskrit is a “special” language, and a progenitor of all modern languages? What sort of “frame of mind” does one have to have to think in Sanskrit?

A: Jean Berko Gleason

Hi I answered this once before and the answer simply disappeared! So I’ll try again. Sanskrit is an Indo-European language, related to most of the languages of Europe and much more closely to many languages of India and the surrounding area, which are its descendants. You can Google its family tree. It’s special in the sense that it has been the language of literature and religion in that part of the world. Its grammar was written in the 4th century BCE, and I mis-spoke when I said it has 9 cases–it really has 8. As for thinking in Sanskrit, I think you’d have to know how to speak pretty fluently to do that, something that I can’t pretend to do!

Q: Shirley

Hi Jean,
Thanks for your excellent research and your voices, too! I’d love to hear some of the differences gender makes in linguistics. Good bye.

A: Jean Berko Gleason

Hi Shirley… Thanks for your question. We’ve done a lot of research on parents’ speech to little boys and little girls and we find that parents are tougher with little boys. For instance, in telling a toddler not to do something they are more likely to say “No, no, no, stop that” to a little boy, but with little girls they are gentler and say things like “We don’t want to do that, Sweetie.” Parents also use more diminutives, like “shirty” and “footie” with little girls than with little boys, and they refer to emotions more when talking to girls than with boys. So from the very beginning they talk to girls as if they are more sensitive than boys. Whether there are actually any inborn gender differences along these lines is something we don’t know–


Q: Sherry

Hey! Is that as good as “hi”? This is amazing. I’m going to put up a teaser about it and this link on Facebook! Bye!

A: Jean Berko Gleason

It’s not as good in the North as “hi” is, but in the South it’s pretty commonly used in a friendly way. In the North “hey” is an attentional device, often considered brusque. Of course, both of these brief greetings are informal, used only among people who can use familiar terms with one another. You probably wouldn’t walk into the office of, e.g., the president of the university and say “Hi!”

Q: Zhana W.

Awesome, thanks!..
p.s. …you’re really really funny! …HI!

A: Jean Berko Gleason

Hi! Thanks. …. bye

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