Meet psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason in these videos, blog posts, and interviews from NOVA's "The Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers." Jean studies how people acquire, produce, retrieve, and sometimes lose language. She discusses that work and her interest in the different ways parents talk to boys and girls.
“It must mean something in some language.”
Jean Berko Gleason is a psycholinguist who studies how we acquire and use language. The shortest language Jean speaks is Munchkin.
Jean is a speed demon who drives fast, and refuses to touch an automatic transmission. Her first car burnt to the ground.
Hi, Thanks, and Goodbye
Jean Berko Gleason is fascinated by language, but annoyed at a child who doesn't say "thank you."
An Efficient Driver
Jean Berko Gleason confesses that driving "efficiently" actually means driving really fast.
30 Second Science with Jean Berko Gleason
We give Jean Berko Gleason 30 seconds to describe her science and does it in 28, even though she "hadn't thought about it."
10 Questions for Jean Berko Gleason
We ask Jean Berko Gleason 10 questions and she explains what she has in common with teenage boys.
Ugga da bugga
My favorite part of the Jean Berko Gleason videos was when she recalled letting loose on her parents with some good old-fashioned gibberish. “It must mean something in some language,” was her response when they told her it meant nothing.
I hear ya, Jean.
“Ugga da bugga” may not be in the dictionary yet, but don’t count it out. Unlike some of our more rigid counterparts (cough, French Academy), we English-speakers update our language as much as we do our social networking sites. There are currently 1,007,711 words in the English language, and a new word is created every 98 minutes. That adds up to 14.7 words per day (according to the Global Language Monitor, which–full disclosure–is a bit more lenient than Mr. Webster). Some are the results of new technology. Others are cultural hybrids that fuse two languages. Each year, new words like “locavore,” “interweb,” and “frenemy” make the transition from crazy talk to real, live word. But each one got started somewhere.
In celebration of innovative, meaningful nonsense, I’ve collected a series of words once considered “made up” that have somehow made their way into our language (officially or otherwise). Some you’ll know. For others, you’ll have to use my sample sentences for hints. See if you can match these crazy words with their original meaning. Then check the comments for the correct answers.
1—Skedaddle A gangly group of street hockey players skedaddled when they saw Jean turn onto their cul-de-sac.
2—Sabotage Jean promises to sabotage the futures of all young people who do not greet or thank her.
3—Octothorpe Press five for Jean, or the octothorpe to repeat this message.
4—Ochlocracy Jean fears that our society will fall into an ochlocracy without learning how human beings think. Go psycholinguistics!
5—Mimisiku “Mimisiku, slow down and stop giving my friends nasty looks on the way to school.” – Jean’s children
- This symbol: #
- A word for mother, originally used in Tim Allen’s “Jungle 2 Jungle”
- A loud shoe; the inability to walk courteously
- A hasty retreat, first used in a Civil War era “New York Tribune” article
- Mob rule
"Mad Men And Mango Lemonade"
Although I only met her for the first time when she rolled into our studio, Jean Berko Gleason is my neighbor. In fact, she lives about a fifteen-minute walk from my house. So when we needed to get some video footage of Jean driving her beloved Subaru WRX, I was clearly the man for the job.
When I arrived at Jean’s house she immediately plied me with some mango lemonade (delicious, just as she’d promised), and we talked about “Mad Men” (“you’ve got to remember,” she said, “that show is about my time”). Jean may be a Professor Emerita, but that must mean the literal translation of “Emerita” is “incredibly busy with about a thousand projects, many of which relate to psycholinguistics and some of which don’t.” Jean doesn’t teach anymore, but she told me she gets new ideas for research just about every day. And she continues to do that research and to publish new papers. We’d all be doing well if we were nearly as awake to the world as Jean Berko Gleason.
Jean did, however, have one piece of bad news to share with me. Her WRX is, of course, a manual shift transmission, because that’s way more fun than an automatic and because it helps her drive fast… um, efficiently. But Jean told me she’s now thinking she might have to switch to an automatic transmission. “Ah,” I thought, “she must be slowing down. Managing the stick shift and the clutch isn’t as easy as it used to be.” Of course, I was wrong. The reason Jean’s switching to an automatic? None of her younger friends knows how to drive a stick, and she’d like to be able to share the driving with them on road trips. I should have known better. The only reason Jean would ever slow down is to let everyone else catch up.
What's a wug
“What’s a wug?” is a question people often ask me when they hear that I developed the Wug Test. A wug is a mythical little creature that looks rather like a bird. It’s included in a series of pictures I drew for a study of kids’ acquisition of English. We wanted to know if children know more about language than just the things they’ve heard from others. For instance, do preschoolers “know” how to make a plural? Adults do: if your friend says he had an “abdominoplasty” and you’ve never heard the word before you still know what two of them are called. Adults know that to make a plural you add some form of -s to the word.
To find out if kids have the same sort of knowledge we needed to use natural-sounding words that they didn’t already know. If we used real words like “dog,” they might know the plural “dogs,” but this could be an imitation of what they heard from adults. So I invented the little animal called a “wug,” a name that we could be sure they never heard before. We showed them pictures of a wug, and said “This is a wug.” Then we showed them another picture and said, “Now there’s another one. There are two of them. There are two….??” To our delight, even preschoolers could add the plural ending and tell us that there were two “wugs.” We used this invented word method to check kids’ knowledge of plurals, possessives, verb tenses, and a variety of other important features of English and found that by the age of 4 they could provide all the most common forms.
Children learn how to make regular plurals and past tenses before the irregular ones, and sometimes we can see that they have this linguistic knowledge by the kinds of “mistakes” they make. So the next time your 4-year-old friend says “I falled down and hurted myself,” you can be sorry for the booboo, but happy to know that the little guy has knowledge about some basics of the English language.
The wug revolution
Today’s guest blogger is Brian L. Cansler, a linguistics student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
As most people familiar with Jean Berko Gleason’s work know, the correct answer to the question in the image caption would usually be “Wugs,” pronounced with a final [z] sound. In this case, however, there’s something special about these particular Wugs. Does the picture give it away?
The first Wug is permanently tattooed on my forearm, and the second Wug is tattooed on my friend Halley’s wrist. As you can imagine, she and I would fill in that blank a bit differently. For us and for countless other linguists around the world, Jean single-handedly created the patron saint of linguistics: the irresistibly cute Wug. (As an aside, not all linguists are branded for life with a Wug. We’re just a bit…enthusiastically dedicated.)
Throughout the entirety of her career, Jean has been making great strides in the fields of linguistics and psychology, and she’s one of the key figures who has helped bridge the gap between the two disciplines. As you’ve surely heard by now, Jean is no stranger to speed; this is mirrored in her fast-paced career. She published a paper early in her career that helped catapult her as close to academic stardom as one could hope to be fresh out of grad school: “The Child’s Learning of English Morphology,” better known as Berko 1958. It was with this paper that Jean undeniably revolutionized the study of language acquisition.
Jean’s Wug test was the first to prove that young children analyze the words around them with innate mental structures and, as if by magic, find complicated rules in this chaotic mess—and actually understand them! This was one of those monumental discoveries that laid the foundation for the modern study of linguistics.
Well, that, and it gave linguists everywhere a common motto to rally under: “This is a Wug.”
"Hi, thanks, and goodbye"
Jean wasn’t kidding—she really did title one of her research papers “Hi, thanks and goodbye.” It was published in 1980, in a scholarly journal called “Language in Society.”
She wanted to know how mothers and fathers might play a role in their children learning the politeness routines of—you guessed it—saying “hi,” “thank you,” and “bye-bye.”
Jean’s experiment was sort of…sneaky. She had 22 toddlers (aged 2 to 5 years) visit her lab twice, once with mom and once with dad. Each time, the parent and child would play for 30 minutes while the researchers secretly videotaped the interaction. Then, at the end of each session, a research assistant entered the room and nonchalantly asked the child a series of scripted questions.
Let’s call the assistant Julie and the child Johnny. The script went like this:
Julie: Hi, I’m Julie. Hi, Johnny. (Pause.)
Julie: Here’s a gift for you for today’s visit. (Pause.)
Julie: Goodbye, Johnny. (Pause.)
Later, the researchers poured through the tapes and counted how many times the children responded with the expected, polite response. The data may surprise you.
On average, the children spontaneously responded with “hi” or “bye” about 25% of the time, and said “thank you” only 7%. (Provocative aside: boys said “hi” 41% of the time, whereas girls did so only 18% of the time!)
Some children did not respond on their own, but did after being prompted by their parents. It turns out that most (51%) parents encouraged their kids to say “thank you,” but far fewer prompted them to say “hi” (28%) or “bye” (33%). Jean suggests this might be because parents assume that the children already know “hi” and “bye,” but still need to learn “thank you.”
Here’s the really interesting thing: these children seemed to be repeating, verbatim, what their parents told them to say, without understanding what they were saying or why they were saying it. In one case, a 2-year-old girl said “thank you” to the door after the research assistant had left the room.
It turns out that this happens when learning other language routines, too. For instance, in an earlier study, Jean showed that children learn to say “Trick or Treat!” on Halloween night long before they know what tricks or treats are. Similarly, even adults who have lost most of their speech, have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease carry out linguistic routines without any problem.
The bottom line of this research seems to be that learning social niceties—even when they’re not sincere or even fully understood—is a crucial lesson in human social development. As Jean puts it in the study: “The child who does not learn to say ‘hi,’ ‘thanks,’ and ‘goodbye’ will become a despised member of society. Anything that can have such an effect cannot be unimportant.”
Trick or treat: the Halloween routine
Halloween is today and children need to know some special language to be successful Trick-or-Treaters. But first, here’s a puzzler: On Halloween, costumed kids are going door-to-door, saying “trick or treat!” But one kid says “good evening!” Who is he dressed up to be? The answer’s at the end of this post.
So we did a study of over 100 children on three Halloweens. Our interest was the special “trick or treat” linguistic routine used on this one day of the year. Children need to produce the routine, but they don’t have to know what it means—in fact little children have no idea what tricks or treats are. Other early routines adults want children to perform are “bye-bye,” “hi,” and “thank you.” Routines are different from most of children’s language, where adults want children to say only things that are true. By contrast, adults teach children to say “thank you” whether they feel thankful or not.
The basic Halloween routine is “trick or treat,” “thank you,” and “goodbye.” If you watch the kids who ring your doorbell, you will probably see that the little ones who are around 3 years old don’t say anything—they just hold their bags open. Kids of about 4 or 5 say “trick or treat.” Somewhat older children say “trick or treat” and “thank you,” and children over 10 say “trick or treat,” “thank you,” and “goodbye.” You may also see parents standing on the sidewalk saying things like “Don’t forget to say ‘trick or treat’ and ‘thank you!’” All this illustrates that it in order to have communicative competence in a language it’s important for speakers to know what to say in many social situations, even ones that occur only once a year. Although most of the time children know the meaning of the words they use, there are also moments when they have to produce linguistic routines like “trick or treat.”
Answer to the puzzler: Did you say “Dracula”? If you did, that shows that you have a complex understanding of our Halloween social ritual.