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9. HUMAN INTERACTIONS; THE EMERGENCE OF LANGUAGE

9.1 Early attachment

Young people in search of their true identity are unaware of the fact that they are working on their "personal system for adaptation and defence": a PAD as a shock-absorber between the person and his environment. We have described it (8.2) as consisting of concentric layers, the outer one of which has acquired knowledge and uses cognitive and verbal communication (language) as instruments to cope with the environment. Building this outer layer is supported and motivated by deeper layers, such as identity (basic security), intimacy (trust), self-preservation and socialisation, from which rise the desire and the courage to come to grips with the world. They supply the drive for joining the game of communicating by speech-sounds. The exchange of sounds between mother and child starts out as a play activity that will later grow into a universal tool for survival. But language will always keep its initial playful properties.

Chapter 8 has specified the elements of personality-growth that protect the self by contributing to the development of communication skills. Many children grow up in a human environment that is far from friendly and supportive. In its development a child passes many hurdles which decide whether it will be able to cope successfully. Challenges up to a certain point are invigorating, especially in a supporting and encouraging environment. When a challenge becomes excessively demanding its effect is discouragement. Too much discouragement results in permanent damage.

Before they have learned to talk children have other ways of communicating their needs and wishes. They use non-verbal means of expression: various modalities of voice, facial expressions, movements, gestures. A baby is not quite as helpless as it may seem. With a display of body-language, an infant expresses its mood and its needs. It attracts attention and voices its discomfort until its needs are met. In so doing it learns to exert power on its environment. The exchange of non-verbal signs and expressions, coupled with good nursing, induces early and firm bonding. [http://www.awareparenting.com] The attachment provides fundamental safety and fulfills the child's need to have its identity repeatedly confirmed. In chapter 10 we'll discuss the consequences of an environment that suppresses baby's early attempts to assert itself.

9.2 Priming the first communicative skills.

In this phase of life it is crucial that the environment (usually the mother) is sensitive to the signals given by the child from the very moment of birth (see the observation by H. Nakajima, 1994, as described in 8.2, and F.Leboyer 1973 ). If the infant receives adequate responses to its non-verbal messages, he learns that he is not helpless, but has a certain amount of control over the world around him. This is reassuring and contributes to feeling competent. If, on the contrary, his appeals fall on insensitive ears, and are not met by touch and attention, the baby remains restless or may finally give up in apathy. In such cases priming of the communicative instinct will fail. Depending on the degree of emotional neglect, the foundations of the personality suffers, resulting in a weak identity and lack of social competence.   
A child with a congenital defect of the oesophagus illustrates this developmental risk. He has been dangerously close to an autistic  syndrome. Surgical treatment  made it necessary for the child to stay several months in a clinical ward. The mother lived at a great distance and did not stay in the ward. When the child, it was her first, finally came home there was hardly any bond between him and his mother. She was a good although somewhat mechanical nurse, the child was quiet and undemanding. The infant care centre had no comment: the child regularly increased in weight. It a was a logopedist friend of the mother who sensed that in the quiet mother-child relation something essential was lacking. She did not leave the matter after mentioning it in a conversation; the mother was not easy to convince.  She brought publications about autistic children and made the parents read them. This opened their eyes and they realised how much their child had missed in affection, and that it had stored away its needs in a freezer. The mother also realised that for this reason the child had never appealed to her loving instinct, and that she had failed to develop her motherly tending instincts. An intimate bond between the two rapidly developed after the mother used the feeding episodes to hold the child close to her. 
The logopedist friend noticed that the empty smiles of the child gradually became more directed towards the mother, and that before long a lively exchange of little sounds developed.   

9.2 The non-verbal part of a spoken message.

With the acquisition of speech- and language-competence the use of non-verbal messages is not relinquished. On the contrary, non-verbal or body language retains its value throughout life. Because its importance is usually underestimated, we will have a closer look at non-verbal communication as it is practised along with speech.

Map 9.2.1 Non-verbal, meaningful aspects of a spoken message

rational content

sender  ->   expressive aspect   MESSAGE   appealing aspect  ->   receiverrelational aspect

In any oral communication there is two-way traffic: we have a speaker (sender), a listener (receiver), and a brief message, e.g.: "Do you know that we start tomorrow at seven?". In the message that is transmitted we can discern the following aspects:

The receiver has but a few moments to scan the message for [1] content, for [2] emotional meaning, for [3] relational signs, for [4] the presence of some sort of appeal. Probably more misunderstandings arise by misinterpreting the non-verbal signs than the actual words. When a non-verbal message is misunderstood it can be the beginning of endless complications. Well-meaning partners in communication will do their best to transmit their intentions in a clear an unambiguous way, and to listen with an open mind and full attention. Unfortunately it is proper to human nature to exploit all possibilities for deception during oral communication. In the common use of speech there are many unwitting attempts to gain "strokes" (rewarding effects) in devious ways. Such deceptive games have been studied seriously. In fact it is the diagnostic aim of Transactional Analysis (T.A.) to uncover them. T.A. as a method of therapy tries to redress such habits in favour of an adult game-free relationship. Interpreting the hidden expressive, relational and appealing messages in communicating with a patient, is indispensable to understand the transactional tactics of a patient. This is a valuable procedure to promote health since some kinds of functional disorders of the body depend on self-deception and misinterpretation of symptoms.

9.3 No language without chemistry.

Digging ever deeper to find the origins of language has occupied scientists of many generations. J.G.Miller (1978) has drawn up an inventory of the communicative processes between all forms of life, from cells to organisms and up to human organisations and institutions. Systems theory has shown that at various levels of evolution developmental histories repeat themselves . One is reminded of this when noticing the striking similarities between an early and a recent manifestation of life: the structure of desoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and the structure of language (Hoffstadter 1979). It is in itself suggestive of continuing evolution that there is an analogy between a molecular-biological process of chemical communication and human language, both being the outcome of a neural evolutionary exchange in a human environment.

DNA is a compound with a truly meaningful structure. Its long molecular strand is a coded script. Molecular arrangements define a "meaning", like a chain of letters on a paper scroll. The lengthy molecule contains the information that is needed to guide the epigenetic development of a fertilized egg-cell into an adult individual. The individual-specific DNA is replicated in the nucleus of every cell in the developing organism. Via the egg-cells and sperm-cells DNA is passed on to the next generation. Goodwin saw the connection of embryogenesis with other cognitive processes such as language (Chapter 4). " ....the juxtaposition of embryogenesis and language is a clarification of the biological roots of generative processes. In linguistics, the aim of a generative grammar is relatively modest : to devise a set of operations whereby the surface structure of language is correctly generated. In embryogenesis, a generative theory must give some description whereby the adult form is generated step by step from the egg. The meaning of the knowledge contained within the egg becomes manifest gradually throughout development until the final details of its surface structures are fully unfolded and the organism enters into a relationship with its environment." (B.Goodwin 1976)

The analogy of a handbook or manual containing words and sentences has often been used to explain the generative process. This is a justified metaphor when the evolutionary origin of language is recognized.

The molecular precursors of present day DNA have been the very origin of life. Evolution still goes on. Molecular species continue to give birth to new life: new life-forms such as species of bacteriophages and viruses with their own forms of RNA, are still being created and modified. The creation of life and the evolution of life forms will go on as long as Earth will provide a sufficiently inviting and challenging environment.

Language, a recent newcomer since Earth's existence, is the fabric of human cooperation. Its emergence in evolution has been a significant factor in bringing homo sapiens to his position of dominance. The use of language has promoted cooperation by facilitating planning, evaluation and correction of intended purposes. As the endocrine and neural systems (NAD) coordinate functions within the organism, so the language system (VAD) has evolved as an integrator of the numerous institutions within human society. Damage to the VAD or the silencing of individuals participating in a vital dialogue is crippling to a developing society.

It is invalid to ask whether language is a man-made artifice or a biological phenomenon. It is of course both. The argument for language to be a human artifact is that it would not exist if man had not been there. But neither would the mongrel dog and the Dali-moustache be there. They are both 'natural' and 'unnatural'. The class of all languages, thorough-breds and moustaches belong in an inventory of biological topics. A particular dog, moustache or language may have features which are characteristic of a certain human producer or user. For that individual trait it certainly deserves the name artifact. There are also reasons however to view human institutions and inventions with the eye of the biologist. All forms of life have certain strategies in common: for growth, reproduction and survival. In this sense language may be considered an organism living in symbiosis with man. It can exist for a short while without man on paper and electronic recordings, and is a part of man's (man-made) environment. The symbiosis between language systems and man has been profitable for both parties.

The VAD has several fascinating features in common with the genetic system's DNA:

- a limited number of elements. The DNA molecule has only four nucleotides to choose from. Nevertheless the number of different successions of the nucleotides is limitless.

Language has

  • unlimited possibilities to combine speech sounds into words and phrases
  • a strictly limited selection of the endless number of possibilities, is called "a language"
  • since the selections that are exchanged between reproducing individuals of a species are called "genes", the equivalent of a language would be a number of connected genes, each coding for a particular physical or behavioural trait.
  • a language can exist in oral form only and be spoken by just a hundred individuals; just as a rare hereditary trait can be carried by only a few individuals.
  • a language can, in addition to an oral form, have a written counterpart that is in use with millions of people. Archaeologists sometimes find fossil evidence of "lost" languages, just like palaeontologists find fossil remains of ancient forms of life.
  • some languages are more successful than others
  • there are species and families of languages
  • the theories of the descent of languages and their mutual relationships give rise to much the same discussion as those about species and families of plants.

The conformity between linguistic structures and the genetic system of biology has inspired D. Hoffstatter (1979) to create his game of Typogenetics. The letter-game prepares the reader/player to understand molecular genetics. Reflections on this aspect of biochemistry close in on the essence of life: creation of new potential, and evolution towards higher efficiency.

There is a striking conformity between such evolutionary extremes as DNA: an ancient molecule that is the building stone of the genetic system for adaptation and defence (GAD), and language: an advanced verbal system of adaptation and defence. Other similarities have shown up at the intermediate layers or levels of the LAD and the NAD. The full significance of these conformities will be understood when more applications are discovered.

9.4 The concentrical organisation of the VAD

Language is a living system, that feeds on the social network of mankind and gives much in return: it is a powerful tool for man's adaptation and defence. Man and his language system live in close symbiosis. Language, like the neuronal system that carries it, is an evolving system and relates in a meaningful way to the user's environment. If used properly, it represents all relevant aspects of that environment. The use of language enables man to defeat barriers of time and distance, to probe, to simulate. It is a particularly useful tool for the human self to interact with its environment in internal and external dialogue. Moreover, language acts as a huge collective memory for mankind: it gives access to practically unlimited resources, such as conferences, libraries, the Internet.

As living and evolving systems, languages employ a strategy of generation, mutation, and selection to increase their efficiency, or "fitness". As a new generation of native speakers is assembled, messengers, in the form of spoken words and phrases, transfer the information from the memory of the language-community (the blue-print) to the building place of the neophyte language-users. Stored in memory are logic rules for word form and sentence structure (phonology and syntax) and meaningful content. The messengers (oral and written messages) carry this information to the new generation of language users.

The potential to develop language resides in the child's genes: but not in the form of folded molecules that will deploy when water is added. You can feed and cuddle a child and fulfill its immediate bodily and emotional needs: but that will not be enough to evoke the use of language. Also required is the caregivers auditory exchange with the child - cooing noises to the use of one specific language. In principle one pair of humans is enough for language to develop, e.g. a mother with her child. The mother will transmit her own language to her child. If it is English, English will develop in the child. If the child grows up with a mother from Rumania and a father from Holland, who communicate with each other and with the child in Esperanto, Esperanto will be the first language acquired by the child. Several such cases are on record, thus supplying Esperanto with equal status as "natural" languages. If twins grow up in close contact with each other, they may develop a language of their own, using bits and pieces caught up from the world outside, but deviating substantially from the language in their environment. In that case, selection proceeds in a different way, the twins reinforcing each other's mutated expressions and dodging the full control of the (language) environment.

This is another indication that language, although an interactive product of the human brain, is itself a living system. Language has features in common with the genetic system (8.3) and features similar to the lymphoid and the neuronal systems (discussed in Chapter 5) that assist man in sustaining life and coping with his environment. Like these evolving systems, speech/language is an instrument for man to create a map of his world and learn to adapt and defend himself. The book-title "The gentle art of verbal self-defence" (S.Haden Elgin 1980) demonstrates that language has a place among the systems for adaptation and defence (SADS).

Like the other SADS, language has a large capacity of memory-storage. Relevant auditory and visual features that are represented in the memory (primary representation) have a secondary symbolic representation in the form of the sounds and signs of speech and language. S.K.Langer has elaborated this point in Philosophy in a New Key, 1960.

Summarising from a phylogenetic point of view, language has these points in common with a living system

When we turn to the ontogenetic (developmental) view of speech and language: non-verbal and verbal skills are acquired and improved by learning, and will continue to adapt to changing environments during a lifetime. In this it also resembles the immune and the neuronal systems.

The network properties in speech-communication present another very strong congruence: all language users are simultaneously receptors and producers of standard messages and are therefore strongly coupled to one another as long as they use the same or a similar language. Just like immune globulines and neurons, language users are part of an adaptive system in which meaningful phrases are exchanged in response to an inviting and stimulating environment. The varieties of languages within one "species" are many. Here are some examples:

Sometimes a variety is nurtured to the extreme, as a token of group-identity, such as gang-idiom or professional jargon. Linguists who try to define the point in time when an idiom has split off and has become a separate language, may find inspiration in the biological definition for speciation. '..a unit comprised of groups of similar populations capable of reproducing themselves, which differs sharply from all comparable groups in several traits.' National languages, when studied in a historical perspective, seem to have response times of at least 20 to 50 years, depending on the force of challenges posed by the environment, such as migration or social change. Domination by a foreign nation has often been a powerful stimulus for change.

There is a fairly rapid turnover of fashion words, and two idioms can be out of phase in developing their vocabularies. What has been outdated in one idiom may be the most original thing in another. Adaptive changes of a language take place over short or long time spans, depending on the properties and the size of the user group. At the level of an individual transmitter/receiver, adaptive response times will be in the order of weeks. At the level of large groups (government employees, the world of art-critics, university professors) the waves of expressions that are in fashion probably vary from months to several years (not unlike a slowed down version of the chemical waves in 3.1, that were the birth-place of cognition).

Languages may experience the need to adapt themselves to exigences of the cultural and social environment, such as new developments in technology, a new experience of emotional or religious feelings, new tools of rational thinking, a surge of ethnic consciousness in a population (black language in the U.S.A.). Within a homogeneous group of language-users the oscillations of prevailing terms are largely synchronous, between groups the coupling is weaker than between members of one group, and the oscillations show phase differences. These and other properties of the behaviour of languages are predicted by the concentrically shaped model as described more fully in 9.10. In Map 9.4.1 we recognize the hard core of language structure, the rules that are resistant to change, and the pliable surface structures that adapt more easily to changes in the environment.

Map 9.4.1 Neural system (NAD), left, interacting with language system (VAD), approaching from the right

In the Map we see two spheres interacting. The left sphere, representing the nervous system of a human individual encounters a language system as part of his environment. In the zone of interaction the language user assumes an idiotypic variety of the language that is adapted to e.g. a two-year old. The language-environment thus undergoes change: under the influence of the child a mother will employ a different sort of language than she would with an adult, she will use her motherese. Linguistic research is finding out which structures in language belong to the hard core that gives rise, via intermediate structures, to the more pliable and interchangeable structure of oral and written language.

Logicians who are mathematising linguistics may find hints in this Map for how to proceed from the hard core of language universals to the surface structures of a particular language. It is more than likely that the Darwinian strategy of a two-way hierarchy (varying + selecting) will be one of the choices to be tried out.

9.5 Development = growth + maturation + learning.

The skills necessary for speech communication develop in the first years of life. Some steps in the pre-verbal period of infancy are essential for the ability to use verbal communication later on. A rule of thumb says that a child that has not learned to chew is, from a sensomotor point of view, not ready to start using articulated speech. During development sudden changes will occur in perception, comprehension, exploring, as well as in social-interactive skills. Such moments mark a transition from an elementary to a more complex level of cognitive functioning. Some of these transitions have been discussed in Chapter 8.

There is continuity in the biological and mental phases of growth. Maturation of the neuronal system makes learning possible. This continuity has been visualized in Map 9.5.1: the horizontal axis from the left to the right. Maturation gradually succeeds growth, and where maturation ends learning begins. All three phases of development can be studied at the levels that are displayed along the vertical axis. Cells can be observed singly or in connection with each other in tissues, such as brain tissue. At a more complex level we contemplate the physiology of organ-systems and their interactions, or the whole individual in his/her transactions with the environment. Many researchers spend a lifetime in one tiny compartment on the surface of this map. The Map can help them to survey the whole area.

LEVEL Growth and
differentiation
Maturation Learning
the individual
(organism)
  challenging
environment
systems   phase of
epigenetic
development
 
organs
  nourishment    
cells  
left to right: structure -> sprouts -> function and
behaviour

Map 9.5.1 Development of form, function and behaviour

Growth, maturation and learning are successive phases of development in all biological processes, and mental processes follow the pattern.

Developmental disorders can have their origin in all three phases:

(1) during growth when the foetus or the infant is undernourished or is supplied with a damaging dose of toxic substances. Examples: consumption of alcohol by the mother or infection during pregnancy by the Rubella virus or Toxoplasmosis. Because in this phase the cells and organs are the primary targets of damage, the emphasis on development in the growth phase is at the bottom of the Map.

(2) the process of maturation may be deranged by failed or dis-coordinated timing. When the clocks of growth processes are out of tune, vital moments of coupling may be missed. Thus a lag in mesenchymal growth in embryonic tissue can cause some parts to develop at a slower rate which prevents the meeting and fusing with their counterparts. The result may be a congenital defect of the septum of the heart or a cleft palate, or both at the same time. The cause may be partly genetic and partly external. In the neural system deviating patterns may develop when migration of early neurons in the foetal brain is influenced by external factors. This can result in an abnormal distribution of brain-functions over the right and left hemispheres. The damage takes place in an organ or organic system: the emphasis is on the middle area.

(3) learning is disturbed. This affects the neuronal system and the entire personality as it interacts with the environment. The shaded band calls the attention to the upper area of the right column. Before cognitive and mental development is at all possible the brain tissues which serve as matrix for the relevant circuits, must have matured sufficiently. Only then the neuronal tissue will have reached a phase that it is receptive to learning (the vertical column on the right).

After organic maturation has taken place, an emotional or cognitive function is susceptible to stimulation only during a critical period. From the beginning of and during that period, the individual can "turn on" a function by using it. It is called priming: an actual exchange between stimulation by the environment and response by the individual is required to start a function. If the function is not called upon, either because of sensory deprivation or because of indisposition of the individual, its potential will not be realized. An unused response system will be shut down and remains so forever. This may seem an inefficient strategy. It nevertheless serves a purposeful economy in adjusting to individual circumstances. For instance "lost" children that grow up in a herd of gazelles or a family of wolves do not acquire speech, but they do develop the use of the sound and sign language of their companions.

After the period of receptiveness has passed, it becomes difficult or impossible to reopen that particular learning channel. If no learning has occurred in the critical period the expected "normal" neuronal patterns will not develop. Without stimulation at the right time discrimination and recognition of distinctive features of speech-sounds cannot cross the border from a potential to a real function (Map 9.6.1, the right column).

9.6 Successive phases in a developing function; a potential is actualised.

genetic structure potential
morphological growth
and maturation
priming by interaction
with environment
actualisation (learning)
shaping by selective
reinforcement

Map 9.6.1 Two phases in development, from potential to actualisation

A potential function which has not been actualised by a series of priming experiences, is lost when the sensitive period for its development has passed. Thus, a lack of priming causes a developmental defect. The symptoms of such a defect can be similar to the function disorders which are due to brain-damage acquired later in life. In order to distinguish them the former are indicated as 'developmental' and the latter as 'acquired' agnosia, apraxia or dysphasia.

In short: it is important from the point of view of prevention to recognise that partial defects of brain function may arise during growth and maturation of the brain, as well as during the learning phase. One should be aware what consequences lack of adequate challenges and lack of key-experiences in the sensitive period of neuronal organization may have. Early warning signs that emotional or sensory deprivation is taking place should be heeded.

9.7 The early environment of the developing brain.

The mother-tongue is learned by immersion in an environment of sounds and expressions. One's native language environment is important. Equally important is an even earlier period: before language stimulation becomes significant, the intra-uterine environment of the developing foetal brain has influenced its structural patterns. It does so by the chemical (hormonal) composition of the tissue fluid around the brain cells which affects their migration patterns. This can have a profound influence on later language functions.

Language breeds like a virus: when it circulates in a society it can reproduce itself in the neuronal system of an infant. Speech- and language skills grow in an infant's brain and take possession of it, but only if the brain is susceptible to the intruder. It is comparable to what happens in the lymphoid system: antibody-receptors (idiotopes) on the surface of lymph cells and immune globulines are part of the environment of the other lymphocytes. When external antigens have an impact the external stimuli give rise to a reshuffling of the network.

. We wanted to find out about the interaction between early immune- and cognitive development because we had repeatedly observed that in some children who suffered from a speech/language handicap no other explanation could be found than an early episode of atopic eczema. Moreover investigations by N.Geschwind e.a. have encouraged us to consider the role of the pregnant mothers' immune system as the earliest environment enveloping and influencing the language-generating systems of the child.

This is a very brief review of his theory. Individual differences in language acquisition and language processing can be ascribed in part to the distribution of functions over the two hemispheres of the brain. In most people the left hemisphere dominates with respect to verbal memory. Damage to the left half of the brain leaves a defect in language function; repair is slow and incomplete. In young children however such a defect can be completely restored in several months. It is possible that in the critical period of language acquisition the necessary receptive and expressive skills are still stored in both hemispheres. At a later stage people would get into the habit of using only the more efficient half (in right-handed people this is usually the left half). But young children would still have easy access to the information that is also stored in the right half of the brain. It is a remarkable fact that more rapid recovery from a language defect occurs in left-handed adults and people with left- handedness in the near family. Geschwind also had the impression that people who in childhood had been dyslectic had a more rapid recovery after accidents resulting in aphasia.

Another remarkable finding by several independent researchers is a high proportion of cardiovascular anomalies in families with dyslectic children. This was a reason to search for the presence of auto-antibodies in the blood of the mothers of children having these defects. It appeared that several auto-antibodies were present at levels that were higher than could be expected on the basis of probability. It is supposed that auto-antibodies occur more in atopic families: the existence of exceedingly sensitive people is the price that humanity has to pay for an immune system that is sufficiently vigilant. Geschwind supposes that the relation with dyslexia is explained by the circulating auto-antibodies in an expectant mother influencing the migration of neurons in the foetal life episode of her child. Thus the child's earliest environment, the womb, would exert an influence on the maturation of its brain. The resulting brain architecture and distribution of functions over both halves of the brain, being partly of genetic and partly of environmental origin, presents a challenge for future research.

9.8 Performance levels in oral expression.

People differ as to their communicative and language skills. The two skills do not necessarily go hand in hand. Excellent communicators, who relate easily to people by eye-contact, facial expression, eloquent posture, gait and manual gestures, may have a limited range of language at their disposal. On the other hand we also know of gifted writers and linguistic acrobats who communicate awkwardly in person. They produce fluent and precise language, the contents of their speech may be intelligible and intelligent, still they may communicate poorly. Shunning eye-contact, their gaze turned inward or to the walls and the ceiling, they make no effort to register the effect of their words, nor do they make it easy for their listener to stay interested or to respond. Where and when do such differences arise? Shyness or lack of empathy may be inherited traits or be bred by bad role models.

Speech difficulties and deficiencies, known under the name "cluttering", may have a hereditary base. It would make it easier if there were a clear boundary between clutterers and normal speakers. We run into some difficulties here. A mentally and physically normal individual is born with the possibility for verbal communication with his fellow-men. Some are highly gifted in this respect, others less so. The gift can be developed by application and practice. Very few people have taken the trouble to achieve more than a tiny portion of their potential capacities in the use of voice, pronunciation, verbal and non-verbal means of expression. The Map number 9.8.1 shows the gradations, from very poor performance, to performing at the artistic level.

mode of
expression
performance level:
low

modal

high
language poor vocabulary
poor syntax
well formulated
efficient language
rhetoric,
raconteur
speech dysrythmic
cluttering
intelligible
pronunciation
recitation
as an art
voice weak or
hoarse
clear,
sonorous
the art of singing
non-verbal
expression
expressionless,
wooden
spontaneous
(facial) movements
mime, drama,
dance

Map 9.8.1 Levels of expressive skills

9.9 Clutterer or not?

Well-articulated speech and mastery of language usually take years to develop. They result from observing exemplary speakers, much practice and self-correction, qualities that not everybody is equally endowed with. In various habits of speech that people display, what do we consider normal, what abnormal? Are there certain qualifications, lacking which speech is called deviant?

The demarcation line is fuzzy at best. One speaker disobeys rules of syntax or articulation because he is tired, another because he is negligent. Another, and that would be a clutterer, does not comply with the rules because he has an insufficient grasp of them, or cannot properly focus his attention on the act of speaking, or lacks coordination of his effector organs. It seems reasonable to state that imperfections in speech and the use of language are acceptable as long as they are transient phenomena that occur only in exceptional circumstances. The same imperfections are diagnosed as abnormal if occurring regularly and under most conditions (Map 9.9.1).

tendency towards
cluttering
easy
circumst.
under time
pressure
enervating
circumstance
none, sufficient
verbal control
- - +
some, and tending
toward negligence
- + ++
strong tendency
for cluttering
+ ++ +++

Map 9.9.1 Conditions leading to cluttering

9.10 Zones of speech-language development.

Systems of some complexity are easier to understand when represented by a model that shows the successive steps in the development of that system. Such a model is the spherical representation used throughout this book: a hard core in the centre surrounded by self-generated hulls of ever greater plasticity. Speech and language development can be represented by a concentric growth model (analogous to the one we have described for the central nervous system). This model is an elaboration of the Piagetian notion of cognitive development in steps. A model of concentric growth is supported by the observation that the perceptual and expressive skills of hearing and speech are acquired in stages: in the Map they are called Levels. The modes of communication between mother and child develop, moving from vocal - non-verbal - signs and signals, to verbally transmitted complex messages. Later the complete grammar and syntax of the spoken language are mastered by the child.

From the full blown sphere of the VAD system we have again punched out a part which on a flat surface becomes a sector of a circle. When this sector stands on its mid-point it resembles a cone standing on its point. This point is the centre from which communication is activated. The hulls or layers that surround it have been generated by the centre. They execute the emotional need to relate by successively creating ever more finely differentiated instruments for its fulfilment: first non-verbal skills (nrs 1-3 in Map 9.10.1) and later the verbal skills (nrs 4-6). The idea that language, analogous to the lymphoid and the neural system serves the defence and adaptation of man, has already been referred to in the beginning of this Chapter (9.4)

Map 9.10.1 summing up six layers or subsystems in oral communication:

  • Emotion, cognition, motivation are activated
  • Voice; receiving and interpreting melodic, prosodic quality
  • Time sequencing of auditory signal, rhythm, rate of speech
  • Decoding auditory features, encoding articulatory movements (short temporal integration)
  • Syntax and grammar (requires medium temporal integration)
  • Logical and efficient verbal communication; requires a long temporal integration process

(1) Activation

Most important is the activating system. Closest to the physiologic regulatory functions, it breeds attention and motivation, and these two are fundamental to learning. A certain degree of alertness is needed for learning. When the level of attention is low, new knowledge or skills fail to develop. Over-activation is equally undesirable: excitement or anxiety prevent the mind from concentrating on new tasks and can even lead to regression (6.5). A mentally healthy infant can summon the attentiveness, necessary for discovering and mastering the hidden codes of speech and language. The influence of emotional conditions during the critical period of speech-language development is widely underestimated.

(2) Voice and intonation.

The mother's voice is the first meaningful auditory stimulus which infants perceive and to which they learn to respond. It is likely that the voice of the mother has already made an impression on the child while it is still in the womb. After birth, smell, touch and sound-play serve an early emotional bonding between mother and child. The melody of a voice expresses moods and emotions. The meaning of this 'song without words' is coded in the tonal pattern: rising with increased activation, descending when it comes to rest. Recognizing tonal patterns is a preamble to non-verbal communication. It requires auditory discrimination of intonation patterns, the meaning of which can vary, from reassurance to warning, alarm or even agony. Gradations of vocal qualities and intonation remain important cues for speech communication throughout life. They signify the speaker's state of mind and his intentions. When laughing, singing, crying, sighing, moaning, scolding, the tone and rhythm weigh more than the content of the words.

For a baby the acoustical environment of a baby consists mainly of people talking, laughing or shouting. A baby's early interpretations of meaning is probably based on these prominent qualities of the voice: loudness and intonation. Intonation patterns of adult speech are among the first successful imitations of bedtime monologues.

Babies and infants are utterly dependent on their environment for obtaining food and care. For this reason they are genetically so programmed that from birth on they exert influence on and interact with their nursing parent, to signal needs and to obtain fulfilment. Successful trials will enhance the baby's motivational competence. He retains sound patterns and associates them with meanings. Later he scans the environment for meaningful sounds and responds to them with his own vocal gestures.

(3) Rhythmic sound sequences. Discrimination and control of temporal features of the sounds produced: rate of repetition, duration, rhythmic sequencing. There is reason to presume that already before birth these features are perceived. They are closely related to the movements which the unborn child has experienced when its mother was walking, dancing, trotting and rocking. Several authors have indicated that there is a connection between the functioning of the labyrinth and speech-language development. When the perception of movement and head-position was impaired, spatial orientation and speech-language development were delayed.

Varying vocal inflection and rhythmic patterns can as such evoke a world of moods and states of mind: singing, shouting, laughing and crying are non-verbal modes of communicating. Their importance cannot be overestimated. As long as an infant is without speech it depends for its contact with the environment on non-verbal auditory impressions and on such visible means as body posture and movement, and facial expression.

It is understandable that nursery-rhymes have been vehicles for speech- and language acquisition since times immemorial. Rhythm allots time-slots to be filled with meaningful syllables, rhyme reinforces the recognition of phonologic features. Moreover, saying nursery-rhymes out loud is excellent training for a controlled rate of speech. As we will see later, hastiness and avoiding of pauses can signify insecurity and fear.

(4) Articulation: discriminating the combined features of articulated sounds and training the neuromotor control of their production. When a young child "speaks its first word" it is certainly a memorable moment for its parents.. The term 'articulation' is generally used for the production of speech sounds. Of equal importance however is the capacity for sound discrimination that has preceded it. This is the receptive side of articulation: the auditory discrimination of characteristic features of speech sounds. It requires not only intact hearing, but also a 'listening attitude'. Recognizing speech sounds is the first step. It is soon followed by attempts to imitate them. The distinctive features of speech-sounds (phonemes) are not learned in isolation but in forever changing connections in words and phrases. The perceptual skill of feature-discrimination has its roots in the earlier organisation of tonal and temporal patterns and in the ability to inhibit background noise in favour of relevant signals (figure-ground contrast function). Sound environments are not the same for all children: much depends on the type of household and the living circumstances. A noisy daytime-nursery is the worst possible environment, with noise-levels amounting to 90 dB, driving the children as well as the nurses to mental exhaustion, and allowing only the most stony species of both to survive.

Retaining and reproducing a one-word sentence is a modest achievement. The next step, to the two-word sentence, is a large one. It brings us to level (5).

(5) Language. This is the level of semantic abstraction, the form and structure of language: grammar and syntax. Within the rules of syntax there are infinite possibilities for meaningful phrases. Grammatical rules allow a variation of word-forms for different functions. Most children of four have a large vocabulary at their disposal and produce grammatically and syntactically correct phrases with ease. Several children who were slow in developing connected speech may later show symptoms of cluttering.

The amount of information that has to be processed on the way from hearing to understanding is staggering. However the language decoding system has found ways to economise the process. Only relevant cues are picked up and at least 50 % of the information is neglected. Deciding what is relevant and what can be dropped is, of course, a very clever development. Furthermore, recognising sequences of function words and content words is not done in small pieces but in chunks which consider the whole of the spoken sentence. A "reverberating" auditory memory holds the phrase available for scanning analysis and a sort of "working memory" (short term memory) holds all possible relevant meanings and structures in readiness.

When for the fifth level the time has come to be actualised and to start functioning, it has already well developed functions to stand on : (1) the prosodic elements giving an indication of the emotional contents and leaving cues about what part of the phrase has priority for attention, (2) recognition of contours and patterns of sounds that frequently occur in known situations.

Children that suffer from a severe mental handicap will not succeed in acquiring verbal competence beyond, perhaps, the one word phrase. Still they are able to understand and use a simple sort of language. Between such borderline language communication and the full use of language with all its subtleties there is an enormous difference.

(6) Logic and rhetoric: the combination of logical thinking, imagination and social skills that form the crown on the art of oral communication.

Even when speech-language functions have developed well at the levels 1 - 5, there remains one additional level to be mastered. It is the skill to give the spoken message its optimal form; shaping the message in a way that holds the listeners attention and makes it easy for him to grasp the contents. A good speaker senses the feelings and expectations on the part of the listener (that is the receptive side of rhetoric skill) and phrases his message into well chosen words, that by the intonation and the suitable rate of speaking make the message resound in the listener's ear (the expressive side). At this level one speaks well prepared with a sound knowledge of the subject matter and persuasive arguments. This can eventually be learned under guidance and with much practice. Many clutterers even with reasonable articulation and language abilities fail as communicators; they have been notably unable to develop their speech skills at this level.

Note that at the levels 2 - 5 we have to distinguish the receiving (hearing, listening, reading) aspect from the productive or expressive (voice, articulation, writing) aspect. In the receiving mode there is temporal integration over increasingly longer samples, in the productive mode the levels show increasingly longer response times. The concentric layered structure is such that from the centre outward stimuli of longer duration are integrated.

Map 9.10.2 The subsystems of speech communication in key-words:

level 6           logic, rhetoric: good story telling
  level 5         language skills
    level 4     articulation skills
      level 3    rate and rhythm of speech flow
        level 2   prosody and voice-qualities
          level 1 attention, emotion

The higher ranking levels surround the lower ranking levels like extension zones of a city; there is interaction between all levels. Levels 1-3 apply to vocal but non-verbal modes of communicating, levels 4-6 to verbal communication only. Note that the response times of the levels 4-6 increase progressively: the time phonemes take is in the order of tens of milliseconds, words hundreds, phrases take seconds to be processed (GJ Dalenoort in a review of a book The symbolic species, by TW Deacon, 1997).

9.11 Underdeveloped zones: empty lots and ramshackle houses.

The six-layered model helps the speech-language pathologist out of a confusion that exists with regard to the syndrome of cluttering. It is defined as a deficiency in speech and/or language skills in otherwise normally gifted or even exceptionally intelligent persons. Since cluttering runs in families and since men are 4 times more often affected than women, there is a hereditary factor involved. The manifestations of cluttering are diverse and differ from individual to individual. Cluttering is not so much a disease entity as a set of more or less related symptoms. The layered model enables us to identify zones of (hereditary + acquired) weakness of function, on the 'receptive' side of the speech/language system as well as on the 'productive' side. A summing-up is found in this paragraph.

Clutttering is indistinct speech with typically several of the following characteristics:

  • the rate of speech is too fast, timing is irregular, words and parts of sentences are repeated
  • intonation is inadequate, the quality of voice not under control
  • articulation is blurred, there are phonemic transpositions, omissions
  • grammar and syntax are deficient,
  • the speaker fails to empathize with the listener, his thinking is inconsistent.

The symptoms have been ranked in such order that they are recognized as deficiencies in the growth-circles of speech and language as represented in Map 9.10.1 In this way we bring order in the confusion about cluttering.

Level 1. In the central area where language is generated, attentional deficit as well as anxiety and being over-aroused interfere with proper development of speech and language. The attention span may be too short to retain sequences of sounds and regularly returning features of word and sentence construction. Frequent spells of attentional deficit or anxiety may prevent the clutterer to develop a firm grasp of the world: his internal image of the world is confused, and this may cause his relations with other persons to be disordered. It can lead to a disarranged and insecure adult personality. Anxiety, hastiness and lack of concentration can cause fluent speech to deteriorate and to become dysfluent, in children as well as in adults.

Level 2. Just as the gift of musicality is partly inherited and partly amplified by training, so recognizing and reproducing the melody of spoken language is the outcome of inborn talent and later training. Speech may become difficult for those who are either not gifted or have missed the opportunity for training. When it is due to particular circumstances after birth, e.g. periods of conductive hearing loss, one can call this a developmental a-musia and dysprosodia: not being able to use the intonation-cues which help to bring order in the confusing sound-sequences of spoken language. A dull voice may result from incompetency to perceive intonation patterns. A lively intonation and a melodious voice suggest a clear state of mind and free expression of the verbal message. Absence of this quality may cause a listener to be uncertain about the speaker's state of mind. Communication will be unsatisfactory without the clutterer being aware of it.

Level 3: trouble with perceiving the duration (length) of sounds, rhythmic patterns, and the number of syllables in a word give rise to lack of control of articulatory skills: omission, substitution and reversal of syllables. When the rate of speech grows uncontrollably high this will add to the listener's problem. Hasty speech can be based on insecurity and fear of silent intervals.

Level 4. Inability to distinguish articulatory features (discrimination of speech sounds) can be a source of later articulatory problems (developmental dysarthria). When the cause is primarily encoding difficulty for speech movements and lack of fine motor control, we would use the term developmental dyspraxia or verbal dyspraxia (column on the right).

Motor speech performance is part of overall sensomotor performance. Control of body movements develops in steps : through phases of crawling to standing balanced on two feet (later also on one foot), walking, running. When sensomotor skills are underdeveloped, the chances are that the ability to discriminate duration, rhythm and number of repetitions is also behind schedule The relation between these cognitive skills and the development of spatial orientation has been demonstrated.

It is recommended for children with physical handicaps, but also for normal children, that they be stimulated by play to work their way through a complete cycle of motor activities: crawling on all fours should always precede walking. In the schedule of motor development the spinal and bulbar coordination precede the functions that are based at the cerebello-pontine level, the midbrain and the forebrain.

When hearing is temporarily diminished during the critical period of developing auditory discrimination skills, this can have a long lasting effect. Prolonged periods of otitis with middle ear effusion give rise to developmental auditory agnosia, an inability to recognise characteristic sounds. As a rule the effect rubs off and is not noticeable after a few years. Episodes of hearing loss are not the only cause of a developmental auditory agnosia. Episodes of hospitalisation, regression during illness, affective neglect, attention problems caused by epilepsia are adverse conditions for learning the cognitive skills needed for speech.

Level 5. When a person has only a dim apperception of the grammar and syntax rules with which language utterances are structured, he can easily misunderstand the precise meaning of a more or less complex message. This would be a form of developmental receptive dysphasia. It is called dyslexia if the disability includes the interpretation of the visual stimuli of written or printed language. If the interpretative decoding is sufficiently developed but the encoding in well-structured language is at fault, the appropriate diagnosis would be: developmental expressive dysphasia. Currently the hereditary weakness and developmental dysfunctions at this level are attributed to a peculiar distribution of language-related functions over both halves of the brain (hemispheres). An incomplete dominance of the left half of the brain is usually accompanied by behavioural features that are advantageous for the individual and his "tribe", therefore the property is not an abnormality but a variation. Thus the deficiency in speaking skill is often outweighed by a talent for music and/or mathematics.

Level 6. A systematic lack of judgment of the social context in which the conversation takes place, can be a source of confusion. The clarity of a message also suffers by a lack of logical thought and lack of expressive imagination. For want of a practical term we call the thus affected person a dyslogic clutterer.

In summary: with the term cluttering we designate an unclear or confused manner of speaking by a population of men and women who, in the presence of normal intellectual abilities, have poor control of speech or language, or of both. We distinguish three main varieties: the dysrhythmic (abnormal tempo), the dysarthric (that includes verbal dyspraxia) and the dysphasic clutterers. The latter partly overlap with the dyslexic population.

It was once thought that cluttering was the gateway through which one entered stuttering. This is true for about 20% of the stuttering population. In these cases a developmental dysphasia or a dysarthric speech-motor disadvantage has been at the bottom of dysfluent speech. In many stutterers however the roots of their peculiar speech behaviour reach deep down into the innermost spheres of the personality. They have been victims of circumstances which have left them basically insecure. Therapists who have guided stuttering clients in exploring repressed area's of their emotional life can attest to that. C.Van Riper has remarked that whoever lifts the lid of the stuttering problem will see all the evils that trouble mankind.

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