HELEN KELLER.

Everybody remembers that iconic moment when Helen Keller learned to sign W-A-T-E-R while her hand was under the pump; I presume most, like me, assumed that Anne Sullivan had given her her first exposure to language. But Kerim Friedman, at Keywords, informs me (quoting a NY Times review by William H. Calvin) that “Helen Keller had meningitis when she was 19 months old. Why is this so important? Because,

she probably had 19 months of normal exposure to language… (by 18 months, some children start to express structured sentences, showing that they had been understanding them even earlier). So she probably soft-wired her brain for structured stuff like syntax before losing sight and sound.”

Makes sense to me; now that I think about it, it’s implausible that she could have acquired her excellent command of English if she hadn’t been exposed to language early on.

Comments

  1. I note that in her “autobiography” The Story of My Life, Ms. Keller writes:

    I am told that while I was still in long dresses I showed many
    signs of an eager, self-asserting disposition. Everything that I
    saw other people do I insisted upon imitating. At six months I
    could pipe out “How d’ye,” and one day I attracted every one’s
    attention by saying “Tea, tea, tea” quite plainly. Even after my
    illness I remembered one of the words I had learned in these
    early months. It was the word “water,” and I continued to make
    some sound for that word after all other speech was lost. I
    ceased making the sound “wah-wah” only when I learned to spell
    the word.

  2. Thanks for the quote Lisa. When I have time I’ll add that to my post… (And thanks to LH for the link!)

  3. Alai Therese says:

    I used to drag my mother out to her old home in Alabama for their presentation there about her. They make it clear (I dare say that they stress) that she was a normal, healthy child (and thus could speak, etc.) before she contracted meningitis (though I had thought it a bit later than 19 months for some reason!).

  4. …it’s implausible that she could have acquired her excellent command of English if she hadn’t been exposed to language early on. Good point. Personal experience with a chatty 20-month-old has convinced me that there has been a significant amount of exposure to language already. Even if she only produces a few two-word phrases (possibly treating them as units, “I go!” “Where kitty?”), she’s got a rapidly increasing vocabulary and excellent comprehension (though the result of said comprehension is often the answer “no!).

  5. Thanks, Lisa and Alai Therese; I clearly flunked out of Helen Keller class!
    Rosanne: I trust you’re keeping notes on syntactic developments.

  6. I seem to remember reading that if a child cognizant with one language looses connection with it before the age of eight (obviously a number that must vary) then they will not maintain it to adulthood, however if they speak it past the age of eight they will.
    This seemed problematic to me at the time since I stopped speaking german at the age of ten, but I did not retain the language at all (it was a secondary language I’d only had 4 years in), I stopped speaking Danish before the age of eight and did not retain that either and did not remember any of it suddenly when relearning it.
    If this claim is true about retention of languages, then I suppose there is some other value to having an acquaintence with spoken language before a certain age, even if familiarity with spoken language is allowed to lapse after that age, this seems a natural enough concept but is there any research backing it up?

  7. I RET THE BOOK OF HELEN AND I LIKE IT I WONDER IF SHE WUOLD OF LIVED SHE WILL TALK A LITLE MOR ABOUT HER LIFE AND MAYBE SHE WHILL SHOW PEOPLE HER LANUGAGE,

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