Imagine having no capacity for language acquisition. Imagine developing a language with grammars that are completely independent from the spoken language of the surrounding hearing culture. Imagine being unable to engage in any of the thought processes I'm using right now. Choosing words and bundles of words to convey meaning, pausing to ponder the interesting similarities between deafness and deficit. Grabbing for a phrase like language acquisition and appreciating the neat little package it represents.
How different would you be? Would you be able to relate to things, even things that don't really require words. For example, do we laugh at slapstick for what it is or are there underlying substructures of feeling and understanding that were created through language.
We're going to explore that kind of thing today as we examine and imagine frontiers where language simply does not exist.
I've been thinking about this ever since reading "The Silent History," an unusual novel about people who can't speak, read, or write. More than anything, the book shows how deeply people are locked into language as a means to communicate. It's so difficult to understand a world without words, we block the signals sending us massive amounts of non verbal communication every day.
Today, we talk to the co-author of "The Silent History," a professor who works with children who are deaf and make their own language and children with no pre-existing language, and a mime who uses silence to help people communicate.
- Eli Horowitz is the coauthor of several books, most recently, The Silent History withMatthew Derby and Kevin Moffett. Previously, he was the managing editor and publisher of McSweeney’s for eight years.
- Marie Coppola is an assistant professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Connecticut. She's the founder and Executive Director of Manos Unidas
- Bill Bowers is a world renowned mime and actor who studied under the legendary Marcel Marceau. He’s performed at The Kennedy Center, The White House, and on Broadway in “The Lion King” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” He’s currently appearing at the Berkshire Theatre Group in “The Mystery of Irma Veep,” June 24-July 19
CHION WOLF: As part of today’s show on nonverbal communication, Greg has agreed to participate in the introduction without using language. Isn’t that right, Greg?
WOLF: It’s right. Okay, what are you trying to say to me now? Sounds like...okay you’re miming flying a kite, opening an umbrella, walking your dog. Sounds like, kite umbrella dog? No? Sounds like, mime? Yes, sounds like mime. Wow that was tricky. Alright, next word...ice cream cone...Mick Jagger, no? Lick? Yes that’s it, mime lick? Mime lick. I’m sorry I’m not getting it.
WOLF: Okay uh, you’re turning blue. Is “blue” the next word? No? Alright, sounds like “paddle”. Sounds like “canoe”? Yeah? Mimelick canoe? That means nothing to me. Okay bulging eyes, pointing at throat, stuck? Yes? Sounds like throat. Something about a mimelick canoe that’s stuck in a boat. (crashing sound)
WOLF: Well don’t just give up. I was so close to getting it. Today we’ll talk about a novel in which children are born with no language, about the art of mime, and about the real life creation of language where none existed. Who else would do a radio show about not speaking? And now…
COLIN MCENROE, HOST: She’s not gonna say my name. That’s sort of part of the thing. Alright so this is all occasioned by a book that I read. I read it in book form, apparently I missed the first wave of it. It’s called The Silent History. So I got a reader’s copy, it was like a few months ago that i got the reader’s copy. The premise of the book is that a cohort within sort of a modern generation of children, a subset of those children are born with no capacity for language acquisition. None whatsoever. They can’t read. They can’t write. They can’t speak. They don’t hear language, they just don’t communicate with us. And then what spills out from there is a little kind of dystopian semi-futuristic fiction and also some social satire and a whole bunch of other things as well. And what I knew just from reading the cover is that a lot of attention had been focused on the fact that the book had initially been absorbed by people as an app. It was something that you sort of looked at on your phone. And that you got installments and that you could move around and it was keyed to play all kinds of...I didn’t do that, I read the book (should I keep this or cut it?). I was fascinated by the premise of this book. What if you had no capacity for language acquisition? You couldn’t learn sign language, for example. You couldn’t do anything like that. How different would your human outcomes be? So joining us now is one of the authors of the book, Eli Horowitz is the co-author several books, most recently, as I said, The Silent History with Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffit. Previously he was managing editor and publisher of McSweeney’s for eight years. So, Eli and I could very easily have a conversation about it, but a lot of it would be speculative. Well it turns out, thanks to the miracle of Producer Betsy Kaplan, that there’s somebody that wasn’t even located terribly far away from where I’m sitting right now. There’s somebody who has really been thinking a lot about this very question. What kind of human outcomes are there when language acquisition hasn’t happened? Marie Cupola is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at the University of Connecticut, where she directs the language creation lab, and she is the founder and Executive Director of Manos Unidas. We’ll tell you a little bit more about that as we go along. So Eli Horowitz, first of all, welcome to the show.
ELI HOROWITZ: Thanks for having me.
MCENROE: I tried to lay out the premise of this. We’re gonna be talking much more about this notion of new language than we are about a book that started out as an app. But did I do okay with the premise of the book - Of this cohort with no language acquisition?
HOROWITZ: Yeah you did great. I was worried I was gonna have to do this myself. You did a great job. And then following them as they sort of form a community of their own. And so, examining what happens in a community without language when they’re not just outsiders.
MCENROE: Right so they have their own community and they have their own way of communicating that’s not a sign language. Can you detail that? Can you give us a little bit more sense of what that means?
HOROWITZ: Sure I mean something we really try to unravel and explore throughout the book is how is communication different from language? We often kind of hear them as one, as the same, because our minds are so dominated by language. But there’s all sorts of ways we communicate: by gestures, by facial expressions, that don’t really fit language in any kind of linguistic sense. I mean surely Marie can talk better about this than I can. But language is a pretty specific thing. It’s hard to say exactly the boundaries of it. But it does mean something pretty specifically and pretty specifically human, whereas communication is much wider ranging and maybe less cleanly understood.
MCENROE: One of the differences between the conversation that you and I are having and the conversation that Marie and I are having, is I can see her head nodding, her hand going up. There’s all kinds of nonverbal things going on right now! So, Marie Coppola, as we go along, we are going to flesh out a little bit what your research is, what your experiences are, both personal and professional with this whole subject. But what about that? Is there a communication without language?
MARIE COPPOLA: I absolutely agree with Eli, and this is one of the distinctions that I stress when I teach about this to my students. Language is a very highly structured system that has the benefit of allowing communication. But, communication can and does pretty much constantly happen, when we’re not using a spoken language or a sign language. And I only just learned about your book, but I am very interested to see how you flesh out those ideas, Eli.
HOROWITZ: One of the things that we were realizing throughout the process was we all do this much more than we’re aware of. Language is so much of a presence and so much of a constant voice for us, that we don’t appreciate how much we’re getting, and what a subtle level we’re interpreting each other. You know, just the way an eyebrow is twisted, like the way that skepticism is different than skeptical amusement on the face, and we instantly understand it, but we couldn’t describe it and we don’t even understand that it’s something that we do understand.
MCENROE: Marie constantly encounters various percentages for how much of communication is nonverbal in any way. You could see 55%, you could see 93% you could see 112%. Depends which study you read, right? Nobody really knows that, do they?
COPPOLA: No, I think that’s too difficult to quantify given that huge range of environments and social settings in which we do communicate. It definitely plays a large part in face-to-face communication. That’s not the particular focus of my research, but I think we all know that. We sense when people are, their emotional state. We understand things other than what they’re saying with their mouth. It is pervasive, and we don’t fully have conscious access to it.
MCENROE: Well let’s blow Eli Horowitz’s mind a little bit, and talk about what the focus of your research is. Cos this is really interesting. Due to whatever extent it’s possible to find a group of people pretty close to the predicament, if that’s the right word, that his characters have. You might have found it, so tell us about this.
COPPOLA: Sure. So Eli, please feel free to jump in and correct me, because as I said, I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet. But the way Colin described it, it sounds like you are talking about no capacity for language, but you’ve spoken no capacity for reading and writing which of course are parasitic on spoken language to begin with. What we know from decades of research now is that sign languages use the same neural pathways and grain areas as spoken languages to a large degree. And so, scientifically it’s a little hard to imagine not having any capacity for language at all. Yet still having something about the organism that wants to communicate. Somehow a social basis for wanting to exchange information between individuals. And forming a community. So that’s not something I think that you’d ever see in real life, but what I have been studying in real life for the last twenty years is a situation in Nicaragua that is, as Colin said, very close parallel to what you described. Except that these are children who still have retained the capacity for language; it’s just coming out as a sign language. They’re going from using gestures, and only seeing gestures, as their only kind of communicative input, and turning that into a language as they form a community.
MCENROE: These are, for the most part, deaf children who have not been taught a sign language.
COPPOLA: That’s right. They were not taught a sign language, but the sign language emerged out of their interactions with each other at a school for special education in Nicaragua.
MCENROE: So Eli this is very close in some ways to your silence, at least in the sense that initially nobody from outside their world can teach them anything, but they can teach one another a system, which they all very quickly learned.
HOROWITZ: yeah that was actually a conscious that Nicaraguan sign language scenario was, was definitely inspiration for a portion of the book just the hunger, like Marie said, sign language you know we very much understand it as a kind of language, and so the children in our book don’t have that, but what they do share with this Nicaraguan situation is the hunger to connect that can kind of transcend institutional barriers and sort of the spontaneity and flexibility, especially of children's minds. to do these things. So that was something we were very excited about. Yeah the closest analog to our situation that we could see was individuals who almost - these children before they were brought to this school - deaf individuals in isolated situations where they don’t have a community to speak with - no one else knows sign language. That’s the closest that we found to people in this condition. The other group that Marie can also talk better about I bet, is cases where a child wasn’t exposed to language but also has a whole host of other challenges where they’re in some abusive situation, or raised in the wild by wolves or whatever - there’s cases of that throughout history. But, in those, it’s often very hard to pinpoint what the effect in their language is and how to separate that from all the other difficulties they’ve got.
MCENROE: Well, Marie, non-verbally indicated to me that she does want to talk about it… particularly that first thing, right? Marie: I can’t tell you how excited I am that we have gotten to the heart of this so quickly. Eli, you really have spent a quite a great deal of time thinking about this and analyzing it, and I really can’t wait to read your book. But, it turns out that my major focus is not on that new language that’s in Nicaragua, but on deaf people exactly as you’ve described. Deaf people who live in Nicaragua, but because they live too far away from a deaf community and they don’t have a strong enough infrastructure to have special education in most parts of the country, they are exactly living the situation that you just described. They’re a single, deaf person. Everybody around them speaks Spanish, which they cannot hear, and they haven’t had the opportunity to interact with other deaf people, whether they sign or don’t sign, and they are basically creating their own mini individual sign language. And for the last twenty years I’ve been working with four deaf individuals like this and following them over time and trying to understand how much language they can come up with, how those gestures systems that we call home sign systems are similar to or different from established sign languages around the world, as well as how much communication is actually going on within those families. And what’s the most striking finding that we’ve discovered recently is that the family members don’t understand them very well, which just blows people away. So, yeah. I’ll just stop there.
HOROWITZ: Don’t understand them as people, or don’t understand the signs?
COPPOLA: They don’t understand the content of the gestures. So their communication is really limited to exactly the kinds of things that I think maybe you are focusing on in your book there. Other sort of more whole body or emotional type signals, like facial expressions, or just routines, or certain context, they really don’t… so the language that the deaf person has invented, the home signer has invented, even that sort of mini language is not understandable to the family members and they rely on these other cues and contexts to communicate whatever they can.
MCENROE: And, Eli, you know, one of the things that happens in your book that is a little bit different from what Marie is describing right now is that this particular cohort of silence ultimately decides that their own company would be vastly preferable, for the most part, to their parents or other people that simply aren’t like them so it’s very much about that experience of “other”. But I think one of the things that you’re both interested in that’s very interesting in the context of your novel and I think of great interest to Marie, is, then what are the human outcomes? I mean, within the fictionalized world of your novel one of the things that happens is that not only do the silent people, the “Silent's” as they are called, not only do they decide to live together, in many cases live communally, but they don’t really necessarily live any kind of parallel life to what everybody else is leading. I mean, they live sometimes in squalor; they live, they don’t adopt a lot of mores that go along with being a part of the speaking, hearing, language-using community. Talk about that decision. What was your thinking about that?
HOROWITZ: Well, in the later portions of the book when those communities start to spring up, we were then exploring it less as a linguistic phenomenon, as a psychological phenomenon, but sort of how groups define themselves, how we understand the other. You know, this, in a way, language became, the language barrier became a useful way to just explore the other, which is obviously sort of a classic fictional trope, is how people react to what they couldn’t understand, and this, the silence as a kind of very firm, clean division between the two groups. And, you know, we see all the time in all different levels of society, groups that are ostracized, sort of reclaim their own identity and take that as a point of pride. And sometimes they are trying to assimilate, but sometimes they want to self-segregate. They want to have pride in who they are themselves. You know, we see things in the deaf community currently with cochlear implants about whether they are having a disability that should be fixed or their own society that should be preserved. And so we tried to imagine that and play it out to its logical conclusion.
MCENROE: Marie, that has to be of some interest to you, that whole question, too. Obviously you’re dealing right now with a lot of people who are in very individual circumstances and who probably really do, would vastly prefer to be able to join the immediate society of their nuclear family, maybe the larger society of their village. But when you look at larger populations of people who are non-hearing people, as Eli says, sometimes there are some identifications that they make that they would be reluctant to give up.
COPPOLA: Yes, well, I mean, for most signing, deaf adults, the deaf community is the only place where they have the same kind of unfettered ability to share their thoughts and feelings with others. They mostly have grown up in families where communication has been limited to one degree or another, and, of course, you would prefer to be in a community where you can be yourself and be understood and understand what others are telling you all the time and not constantly feel excluded and isolated.
MCENROE: I just want to go back to the people that you’re talking about. The people who are… they’re rural people in Nicaragua; they haven’t had this urban experience of this learned language that wasn’t really created by any outside force or anything like that, but simply people who are, who become their own version of signing people in these urban Nicaraguan environments. But, the people you’re looking at, they live in rural environments; nobody teaches them international sign language; they don’t learn this thing. And in terms of human outcomes, they’re, you know, I mean, but they’re also not Peter the Wild. They’re not growing up, they’re not being raised by wolves. So how estranged from the value sets around them do they become?
COPPOLA: That’s a really great question, Colin. So, it is important, I think, to recognize that there aren’t the same kinds of limitations as there are with feral children and cases of abuse, many of them well-known, like the case of Jeannie, in the United States. If we do see differences between how home signers, these deaf individuals who are creating their own language… if we see differences in how they understand the world or understand other people, then we can be a little bit more confident that it has to do with this lack of linguistic input and the limitations of their language system. And that’s actually what a couple of current lines of research in my laboratory are addressing; we’re looking at how these deaf people understand quantity, whether they can learn to count, for example, and also their social cognition, how do they understand other people. They’re not socially impaired at an organic level; there’s nothing intrinsic to them that is causing them to not be able to understand others socially because they have fairly relatively normal social interactions. They have friends; they interact with their family members; they talk to other people in their communities. Some of them have children; they have jobs. So, it is very interesting to, we have observed some very interesting limitations in their abilities that do make them a little bit different from people who have a full language. And I could talk more about that at some point.
MCENROE: Yeah, I think we do want to talk more about that. But, we’re going to take a break in just a second here. First of all, let’s mention who it is we’re talking to. You just heard Marie Coppola; she’s an assistant professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Connecticut where she directs the Language Creation Lab and the founder and executive director of Manos Unidas. Eli Horowitz is the co-author of several books, but most pertinently, The Silent History. I believe there is a launch party tonight for the book version of The Silent History featuring Eli and his co-author, Matthew Derby, with special guests including Sloane Crosley, one of our favorite guests on this show, ever. (You should mention to her, Eli, that she owes us a guest appearance.), MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, and Eszter Balint. And, so that’s all going to be happening tonight at the Power House Arena in Brooklyn, and I don’t know how many of our listeners can rush over to that, but maybe some will. So before we go to break, you know, Eli, because I want to talk a lot more about this. I should also say in the final segment we are going to add, because we have to have a conversation with the mimes, so Bill Bowers is a world-renowned mime, actually he studied with the legendary Marcel Marceau, will join us in the third segment here, but you’ve been thinking about Bill Bowers, Eli, and thinking about what Marie just said, in reading your book, to me, I really started thinking about that issue, to what degree does our psychological constitution, our set of social reactions, our ability to function in society… how much of it is completely dependent on linguistic input at some point, so that, you know, even if I’m watching Bill Bowers do mime. Well, maybe that’s not a good example. Let’s say I’m watching slapstick. Let’s say I’m watching Peter Sellers, or Charlie Chaplin, or something like that. So, there’s no words involved there and I’m laughing because I’m seeing, you know, if I’m laughing, I’m laughing because I’m seeing some kind of physical pain or some kind of awkward physical situation that’s couched for me in a safer setting so that I understand it’s not really a dangerous thing; the person isn’t experiencing real pain so I can now laugh at this. You know, I started to wonder, if I had no language acquisition capacity, how dependent on that substructure am I for understanding something as completely wordless as slapstick, which I think is part of the question you’re asking about the people in your book.
HOROWITZ: Certainly. That’s right at the core of the book and obviously language is ubiquitous in our understanding of those things. The question is, is it necessarily ubiquitous, or is it more just the chattering voice, the little annoying voiceover we do, to kind of create a filter between us and our experience. You know, Marie was talking about the limitations that may be created by the lack of language and certainly those exist, but what I also was wondering was in what ways does the language limit us? Does the language come between us and the more true experience? In which ways is language kind of an impoverished way to have certain kinds of experiences or interactions? You know, if someone asks you, “How are you feeling?”, “How was your day?”, I think we all know that, “Pretty good.”, or “I’m grouchy.”… those are actually pretty weak depictions of our internal states and those can be conveyed much more clearly through other forms of communication, and other forms of expression. And, so, the extent to which we are dependent upon language is not always useful to us. And the extent to which we are unable to imagine an experience outside it, I think, is a weakness on our parts. That’s what the book was trying to do was imagine another kind of experience.
MCENROE: There is so much about that that I just want to explore. We’re supposed to go to break. But before we go to break, I just… so I don’t lose that, Marie.
COPPOLA: Oh, I’m definitely coming back to that, so you don’t have to worry.
MCENROE: Let’s go to break there. There’s just about eight trains of thought that I have right now and I think I can only hold on to about two of them. That’s all right; the guests will figure it all out. We’ll take a break and we’ll come back.
MCENROE: Alright. We’re back. We’re talking about people who must, or, can, try to communicate without using language. And so Eli Horowitz is with us, the co-author, most recently, of The Silent History with Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffitt. This is a novel, it’s a fascinating novel and it really does sort of work as kind of a semi-dystopian future fiction and some satire as well, and a lot of other things. But it is about a subset of a generation born with no ability to acquire language. Marie Coppola is an assistant professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Connecticut where she directs the Language Creation Lab. She is also the founder and executive director of Manos Unidas. So as we were going into the break, Marie, Eli was talking about that whole question of, ok, so, we understand what an incredible deficit and impairment it would be not to have language but he had started to wonder also whether there were any kinds of impoverishment or deficits created by language, by having language. So you’ve got two groups of people that you can look at here. One of them would be the group of deaf people living in urban situations in Nicaragua where without any intervention, they invented their own sign language, which I think we all know that if you and I and Eli and Betsy and Chion were plopped down in urban Nicaragua we wouldn’t be able to do that because we probably wouldn’t be able to invent a full sign language that we could use to communicate. You’re also looking at these people in rural Nicaragua who don’t have access to other deaf people to build this language and don’t have access to any other kinds of interventions to help them learn a language. And one of the things you’re saying to us is, their families can’t understand the self-created idiosyncratic communication styles and structures that they try to develop, which kind of reinforces Eli’s point a little. Right?
COPPOLA: Well. It does and it doesn’t. I mean, there is some degree of communication there, but it does seem to be limited to these non-linguistic aspects. And I, this is a line of research that I’ve just begun with one of my graduate students, Blake Harrigan, and if you de-contextualize the gestures, if they’re just describing events where, it could be anything, right? It could be a man drinking a cup of water or a woman drinking a cup of water, and you have the home signer express that with their gestures and then you show that to their mothers, their mothers are not very accurate in, they’re not terrible, they’re better than chance at picking the right picture that goes with that sentence, but the very, very striking part is that if you show that same sentence to a signer of American Sign Language who has never seen that home signer before, doesn’t know anything about Nicaraguan sign language, or Nicaraguan culture, and more importantly, has not lived with that person for the last 25 to 30 years, they are better able to extract the meaning of those sentences than their own mothers and family members. And that is really, really striking to us. And that to us, it indicates how these home sign systems have gone from being gestures that are really tied to the context of the here-and-now and to certain routines is really becoming transformed into a linguistic system that has systematic relational properties where the gestures relate to each other in predictable ways that those family members, they haven’t learned the grammar of that home sign system.
MCENROE: Of course, one of the, we can fall, I mean, I’m sure you don’t, but we, in conversation, can fall into the trap, Eli, of thinking, I mean, you gave a great example of it. You ask somebody how are they doing, or how was their day, and you can say “I’m fine” or whatever, and that can mean all kinds of different things, right, including it was terrible or I don’t feel like talking about it or I actually did have a good day, or, I mean, we don’t always use language to convey an exact set of meanings. We use language in lots of various slippery and complicated ways. Language is imminently messy.
HOROWITZ: Yeah, definitely. And we are not fully aware of it. We think we can pick up into it in politics or in advertising, things where we are conscious that someone is trying to sell it to ourselves, or sell things to us. But what we’re less conscious of is how we’re selling things to ourselves all the time. You know, just walking into the studio today, just my constant narration of every person I see on the street, and trying to find the thing, and am I late, blah blah blah. It’s tiring. It’s tiring and it’s not necessarily accurate. So, you know, I think it’s true for some of these experiments that Marie is talking about, I mean, that was a fascinating experiment, but still it’s about conveying fact, conveying information. I think it’s definite that language is probably the best tool for that but when it’s these other things that you’re talking about conveying: emotional states. I mean, I bet these mothers love their children, you know, how do they communicate that love? Is that communicated through words or gestures? Or is it communicated through other forms of communication? There’s a lot of forms of experience that we have trouble being conscious of, that we have trouble pinning down, that we have trouble testing precisely because they’re non-linguistic type of experience.
MCENROE: [Marie] You want to react to that?
COPPOLA: Yup. I totally agree with you, Eli, and I, as you said that, I was reminded of the situation of my own father so, I don’t come to this by accident. Both of my parents are deaf and use American Sign Language and it was one of my first languages along with English. And my grandmother, who was, so, my father is like 95 percent of deaf people in the United States. He was born into a family where everyone was hearing except for him and he was born at a time where the recommendations to parents were do not learn sign language because then your child will never learn to speak and it won’t be good for your child. Well, I mean, we could have a whole other show about all of that, all of those issues, but the bottom line here is that she really communicated with him through food. She was, her parents had immigrated from Italy; she was a wonderful cook; she had a restaurant in upstate New York; and, she really communicated with him through food. And, the rest of his family sort of picked other ways to interact with him and communicate with him and communicate their affection and love for him. One relative would always take him to the movies. Another relative, you know, would do other things with him. But, yeah, if you only, see, the fact that we all have language and these other ways to do, to express emotions and those kinds of things, that’s really great, but when you only have that, that is very, very limiting for us as humans, and that’s… hmmm. It limits the kinds of things that can go on in your own mind as an individual and it limits your ability to form really close relationships with other people. I don’t want to say that the deaf people either in my family or in my research don’t have any… they are not able to optimally express their affection and love for each other because they only have those non-verbal, non-linguistic channels to rely on.
HOROWITZ: I’m just wondering if the deaf people in your study have had interactions with each other.
COPPOLA: They have occasionally met each other, but they haven’t had extended interactions with each other. But more to your question, there is one deaf person I have worked with who does live in Managua where there is a vibrant deaf community. In fact, I met him at the deaf community there, in the deaf club. And he understood that they were like him, that they talked with their hands, and he understood that they could all understand each other, and he could understand a little bit, and I thought after that first meeting, I would never be able to continue studying his home sign system because, of course, he would go learn this new language, like, how amazing that he could now be part of this community. He has not become part of that community. That happened eighteen years ago and he’s happy with what he has. He knows where they are; he could go there any time, but he has chosen not to which is very different from the experiences of deaf people in the United States. Once they find the deaf community after they’ve been isolated linguistically for a long time by, because their families have, kind of, encouraged them to speak and understand English and really haven’t embraced sign language as a means of communication. That doesn’t happen here. When people get into the deaf community, it’s just this huge sigh of relief. That’s now their world. But, for this guy, it wasn’t. And it speaks a little bit to cultural differences in these non-verbal behaviors and the use of gesture, by hearing people in Nicaragua. They really, they go to town, I mean, they, you just see these gesture conversations happening all over the place, all the time there… much have a much richer repertoire of gestures they use and they’re able, they are much better able to communicate with a deaf person who doesn’t share a language with them than anybody in the United States is. It’s been very, very remarkable to us as researchers.
MCENROE: That really is fascinating. Now I just want to shift gears just a tiny bit, although not much. Eli Horowitz, this is one of the few shows you’re going to do in which the interviewer is not constantly dwelling on the evolution of this novel through an app. But there is one little part of this that I do find interesting, and that is whether or not the book itself, and the notion of The "Silent's" in this generation, or this portion of a generation that can’t acquire or use a language, rose, or may have arisen from any kind of anxiety about the transformation that we’re all engaging in digitally right now. You know, I just spent four days teaching a writing workshop down in New Haven (I’m in Hartford most of the time) and one of the differences between Hartford and New Haven is the streets are much more full in New Haven of people in their late teens and early twenties who are using their phones all the time. And I just realized I had to develop a slightly different sort of physical reaction system and social reaction system because a lot of people are just walking toward you about to smash into you, you know, and they just don’t know it. And I’m not used to that. And, you know, I mean, McLuhan talks about how we’re going use technology to extend our dendrites out into the universe and we did that, but, I’m also, I’m keenly aware that this, it’s just not a complete boon, right? There are ways in which we are cut off from old styles of communication simply because we are hyper-reliant on new devices.
HOROWITZ: Yeah, I think that’s true and not even anything very specific about cell phones or e-books or anything like that but just we are becoming, there’s just maybe more and more chatter and there’s more and more chatter that we mistake for experience or that becomes a replacement for experience or how the experience gets mediated, whether that’s in our consumption of media or our communication with each other, you know, and I’m fully a part of this as much as anyone, and I think in some ways it’s also just a skepticism about writing, you know, we were three writers who wrote this book about how language can hold us back and is something to be, on some levels, suspicious of. The more that we do these things you can also see how it’s kind of a pretty thin layer of experience the way we express ourselves. So, yeah, so it’s tied up with all those things and, you know, we kind of only discovered the book throughout the writing of the book. It wasn’t a screed or I didn’t have a thesis statement to start with.
MCENROE: Alright, so we’re going to take a quick break here. We’re going to add to this conversation in, I think, some interesting ways, too, that do really correspond very neatly to Marie’s work and Eli’s book. Bill Bowers will join us, world-renowned mime, right after this.
WOLF: Just say it… say what you’re doing… come on, just go ahead and tell us. Just say what it is! What? Again? Dang. This is the fifth time I’ve been kicked out of a mime show. Today’s show was produced by Betsy Kaplan and me. Our interns are Brittany Hill and Katie Peikes. Greg Hill tweets for us @wnprcolin and, sort of, appeared in the intro. The part of Bill Curry was played by Teller. For show pages, articles, and videos of the Faith Middleton Show staff’s new project Schmooze-less Food, visit our website at www.wnpr.org. On tomorrow’s show, our salute to game shows. And now, back to Colin.
MCENROE: Alright, we’ve been having, to my way of thinking, a fascinating conversation about this whole notion of communication without language and particularly communication by and for people who have not acquired language one way or another. Eli Horowitz is the co-author, with Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffitt, of The Silent History. This is a novel about a group of people, part of a generation of children born without language acquisition… cannot speak, cannot understand language, cannot read, cannot write. Marie Coppola is an assistant professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Connecticut where she studies a similar phenomenon in many ways. Groups of people, primarily in Nicaragua, who are deaf but have not been taught, by intervention, sign language and either designed their own home signing systems or learned this separate urban language which has been evolved by the deaf people in urban settings all by themselves. So, we’re going to add to this conversation, somebody who, volitionally and electively, chooses to communicate without words; that’s Bill Bowers. He’s a world-renowned mime and actor… studied under Marcel Marceau; he’s performed at the Kennedy Center, the White House, and on Broadway in The Lion King and The Scarlet Pimpernel. He’s currently appearing in The Mystery of Irma Vep at Berkshire Theatre Group, Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. That will be running through July 19. Welcome to this conversation, Bill Bowers.
BILL BOWERS: Thank you very much and I have to tell you this is not my first radio interview as a mime.
MCENROE: Well, you’re not the first mime we’ve had on our radio show, either. We really are that perversely inclined that we would have talked on more than one occasion to more than one mime. But, you know, listening to this conversation, you know, one of the things that I was going to ask you is when, part, obviously, mime is kind of like haiku, right? You’re imposing on yourself a set of restrictions, so that’s a choice. And I’m wondering, also, when people watch mime, when they’re sitting in the audience watching you, do you sense in them any kind of anxiety, like, what if I can’t understand it… what if I don’t get it. Is that part of attention that creates the excitement of the performance?
BOWERS: Absolutely. I feel as though that’s always part of my job as a performer that works without language for the most part is to address and deal with the resistance in the room, and I, you know, usually choose pieces that kind of ease an audience into how they have to participate in making the performance happen because it really is a contract between me, as a performer, and the audience if they are going to participate in an imaginary world. So yeah, there is always resistance. And I think some of it is that they’re not going to understand it; some of it is the connotation of mime, particularly in this country, is the negative kind of, you know, butt of a joke kind of thing that people think, well, it doesn’t have meaning, or it’s going to be weird, or it’s going to be, they’re going to, you know, hit me with an imaginary rope or something, you know, so there certainly are guards up in an audience.
MCENROE: You know, as we were doing the break, Marie was saying, she was talking about what the limitations would be for you. Like, she was saying, he probably can’t communicate what happened yesterday, or, I don’t know, what were some of the other ones you were saying, Marie?
COPPOLA: What will happen tomorrow, or what someone else thinks, or all kinds of things that we really seem to need language to do.
MCENROE: Well, do you agree with that? How many limitations do you feel? Or is it just a matter of getting your act together, and you could say almost anything.
BOWERS: Well, that’s an interesting question. I travel a lot in Europe and other countries and when, of course, English is just spoken so many places now, but I have found that I have never had a problem communicating what I need to communicate if I don’t have the language to do it. It really is my first language so I am very comfortable with trying to figure out how to say things non-verbally and I find that it’s just a place that audiences, not audience, that other people can find their way to, to communicate, you know, essential things that you need to say to someone right now. So I don’t feel like it has many limits.
MCENROE: Eli Horowitz, you seem to have thought about everything in terms of thinking about this imagined group of people who can’t talk and can’t understand language. I would assume mimes were in there somewhere, but this would be your opportunity either to ask a question or direct a comment to somebody who actually is working as a mime.
HOROWITZ: Well, what I think is most interesting about Bill and people in his position, whether mimes are even to some extent actors and actresses, is having to become conscious of these things that we are doing unconsciously all the time to maximize this form of communication. So I don’t know if there is a question in here, but there must be all these moments where you are realizing, if I bend my face like this, if I bend my body like that, it will create this kind of understanding and this kind of emotional state in the viewer, and having to kind of become very precise about that.
BOWERS: Yeah. I feel like most of my job as a mime and as an actor is to be an observer and to collect sensations and gesture and things I view in the world and then find a way to, not simplify them, but heighten them in a sense. I always, when I work with students, I always talk about mime being a heightened truth. You are trying to be as truthful as you can be in a heightened physical language so that the largest amount of people can hook into you and follow you.
MCENROE: You know, Marie, that sort of leads me to, the answer to this question is four hours long, unfortunately, but, you know, he’s saying something really interesting, which is, you know, and Eli is saying something really interesting which is, as a mime, Bill Bowers, he’s thinking about that, he’s thinking if I bend my face this way, and my body that way in a very precise way, if I heighten it, you know, I can communicate these very precise things. So, but there’s some kind of gap between that and one of these homes signing deaf people in Nicaragua who have tried to develop their own, tried to really be Bill Bowers in a certain way… if I bend my face this way, if I move my hands that way, if I do this, my family will understand what I’m thinking. Where’s the gulf there, between what Bill can do and what’s almost impossible to do for the people that you study?
COPPOLA: That’s a great point. And again, this goes back to this distinction between language and communication that we talked about earlier in the show. And communication can take many forms, right? It can take the form of mime; it can take the form of your dog observing your behavior and predicting what kinds of things you’re going to do. That’s obviously communication but that’s not linguistic. And what’s different about language is that it’s a productive system that uses these little chunks of meaning that aren’t themselves meaningful that we then put together in these very systematic ways. And, of course, I realize that as I’m saying this, Bill is probably thinking well that’s exactly what I do too, right? And I wish we had longer to really get into this. Because obviously when you study something so closely and you’re talking about these observations, these very very close nuanced observations that you make, that you then bring into focus, right? That is really incredible. Of course only a few people are talented with that. Most people can’t travel around the world and have conversations with, successful conversations with, just about everybody they meet. I mean, I’m kind of one of those people, and you’re one of those people but we’ve come to that through a very specialized set of experiences that has kind of led us down that path. People can get by with gesture without speaking but usually that requires a pretty interactive, for a normal person, right, that requires, and I mean typical, by normal. For the typical person, who hasn’t honed this expertise in some way that requires some sort of cooperation and back and forth interaction with somebody who is really willing to enter into that.
MCENROE: That goes to another point, about that willingness to enter into that, too. Bill, you know, in Eli’s book, the people who can’t acquire language, that kind of person is called a Silent and is a semi-pejorative term, I think, for some people, in this book, and sometimes even watching people who communication only by sign language, I think, in some of us there’s a little anxiety that wells up, just because they aren’t making any noise but they’re communicating and I’m not used to that. I’m guessing with audiences one of the things you have to struggle with is people, especially when you perform in Washington, God help you, people have a problem with silence, right?
BOWERS: Oh yeah. I think it’s a very vulnerable place to ask people to sit in and I spend a lot of time in my life thinking about this because, you know, if you think about places of silence, their temples and churches and libraries, their places of contemplation and thought, and so when you ask an audience to really be in that silent space, it’s vulnerable. They might actually feel something. And, that’s by and large the main comment I’ve gotten from anywhere I’ve performed in my entire career, is people say to me oh I had no idea I would be feeling so much at a mime show, or I didn’t realize I was going to cry. You know, I think sometimes language and, you know, bells and whistles and sounds that keeps feelings at bay, in a way, something you can put in front of actually emoting.
HOROWITZ: I very much agree with that, and I think it is really something. A limited group of people are conscious of their ability to do this, but I actually think we all have a really strong ability to interact this way to some extent. I mean, you can do it as simply as just turning the sound off in a movie. You’ll understand ninety percent and then just take a moment to think, why do I know what that person is basically saying, why do I know what they’re feeling and, you know, it’s not that this can do everything that language can. Marie said some very good examples of things that language is uniquely good for: talking about things that aren’t there, talking about the past, talking about the future. The question is do we structure our experience to make that kind of information more important than it really needs to be at the expense of other kinds of experience, or other kinds of information.
BOWERS: Right. I think some of it, for me, is being present with another human being. And that, and within that, comes a willingness and a maybe a way to hone the ability to communicate what that word is, is to actually be available to each other. And that’s what I find, as teacher that’s what I try to encourage students to do, is to just take away sound and allow that presence between each other and that opens, it seems to open up portals in us that we may not ordinarily want to open up.
MCENROE: We’re going to have to stop there although we could, I have to have introduce our fourth guest, Humberto Echo, who is now going to explain what language actually is, no that’s actually not happening; we’re all done. But although I would just quickly say here, you know, one of the things we didn’t have time to get into, there’s like fifteen things we didn’t have time to get into, but, you know, just even building on what Bill just said. I think there’s also just this strong prejudice and you see it some of the characters in Eli’s novel. And I’m sure Marie encounters it, too, that when language isn’t being used that means something intellectually inferior is happening.
COPPOLA: Spoken language.
MCENROE: Yes, spoken language means, is a sign of intelligence and a lack of spoken language is implicitly cruder and less intelligent. And I think that extends even to mime. I think they’re some people going, well, if he’s not going to talk, he can’t possibly tell me anything interesting or important, so, I mean, that’s like a whole other area of prejudice but if you want to experience some of that, or at least see that in an interesting way, do read The Silent History, even if you missed the app phenomenon… you didn’t do it that way. I’m really, I have enjoyed the book a lot and certainly you’ll never think about wallabies quite the same way again. Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffitt wrote that book. Marie Coppola has been with us from the Manos Unidas and the Language Creation Lab, and, of course, Bill Bowers. Go see him in The Mystery of Irma Vep at Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge. Thanks to Betsy Kaplan and Chion Wolf for pulling this show together.
WOLF: I’m Chion Wolf and ten years ago today my best friend ran off to become a mime. She kept quiet about it for, I guess, her whole life and then I never heard from her again.