In a recent podcast of On Being, Krista Tippet interviewed internationally known psycho-linguist Jean Berko Gleason, “Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life.” Gleason explains that among linguists as among many academics across the field of psychology, there are long standing debates about whether the human ability to learn and speak languages is a product of nature or nurture. The nature camp maintains that the capacity of language is inherent in the human being–that it comes with the package. That package contains a universal grammar of sorts that allows the child almost immediately to begin absorbing and producing human language attuned to the language or languages the child is born into. The nurture camp holds that the human being is wired for language but that the community supplies and shapes the language that the child learns.
Gleason takes what she calls an “interactionst” position:
Language develops through interaction with other people talking to you, and it is not through mere exposure to the language. In other words, you could believe . . . if you’ve got the principles, they’re innate, you just have to hear the language, set the parameters, and away you go. Well, the thought experiment that I would propose for that is, if you really think that, take your child and set her in front of the, I don’t know, the Chukchi or the Korean cable news every morning. . . tell me how much Chukchi that child can speak. And you know what the answer is going to be. It’s going to be none. Because children don’t learn that way. That is not how you acquire language.
I wonder if much of our human life might not be improved if we took up an interactionist approach to everything. We are in the midst of “the political season” where the airwaves are filled with ideological and political soundbites. Ideas about race, about the economy, about women and men, about sexual orientation, about religion and politics. Views are pitted against each other as if liberals have it all right or conservatives have it all right, and it must be one or the other. What if we reserved our decision making until we had some time to interact with racial issues a little more deeply; with human beings who live sexual orientation differently than we do; put our hands into some economic issues other than our own; lived with religious viewpoints that ignored or ran roughshod over our own.
On more than one occasion I have noticed how an individual that I perceived negatively through social media seems much more human, more like me than less like me, more recognizable than strange when I see and speak to them in person. I can only assume that I am perceived by others that differently, too, depending on how directly, openly and carefully we are interacting with one another.
Interaction not only allows us to become fully human, but is required to keep us human.