UCL News


What do language, frogs and savants have in common?

4 October 2005

They can tell us more about the human mind than a brain scan.

A new collection of essays takes the surprising or the quirky (such as a savant's obsession) and turns that into major insights into the mind. The book, Language, Frogs and Savants: More Linguistic Problems, Puzzles and Polemics is published by Blackwell Publishing this week and in each essay, Professor Neil Smith, UCL Department of Linguistics, shows an area of the mind through the window of language.

Professor Smith, the author of the book, which is a compilation of essays originally written for Glot International, says: "Linguistics is a science like neurology or genetics, that is often not appreciated as being scientific even though it can often tell us more about the human mind than an MRI scan is able to. While an MRI scan lights up to show which area of the brain is working when a person speaks, it isn't able to tell you what language the person is speaking - they could be talking English or Japanese and there would be no difference in which area lights up. Linguistics tells you something different about the working of the mind."

One essay deals with a savant that Professor Smith has been following for many years. Unlike most savants (a savant is someone with a remarkable talent or skill who also suffers from autism for example), Christopher, featured in the book, "cannot devise a non-losing strategy for noughts and crosses (tick-tack-toe), but he can read, write, understand and translate over twenty languages." Professor Smith admits that this is something to marvel at but asks "Can such pathological cases also tell us something about the human condition?" He believes they can tell us a lot more than the average MRI scan ever could.

In the case of Christopher, says Professor Smith, he is unable to function in society normally. When on holiday with his sister he got completely lost - he has difficulty finding his way around. When his sister did manage to track him down, he was helping a couple of tourists - Spanish and German - by acting as their translator.

According to Professor Smith, his study is evidence for an important finding - language is independent of all other forms of cognition. For instance, the two functions - intelligence and language learning - are separate. You may have studied French at university and have a perfect grasp of English but be unable to use a map.

Another essay "Babes and Sucklings" questions whether the trend for baby sign language can really help babies learn languages. While another one asks 'DID YOU KNOW THAT THE PORTUGUESE FOR TURKEY IS PERU'. The book is certainly quirky and it will appear in shops on 4th October 2005.

Notes for Editors:

1. For further information, photos or interviews please contact Alex Brew at UCL press office on 020 7679 9726 or or a.brew@ucl.ac.uk. Out-of-hours contact 07747 565 056