Teaching Knuffle Bunny
As I began working on the philosophical issues presented in this book, it slowly dawned on me that raising lots of general issues about the philosophy of language would not be helpful. Instead, I’ll just say something about the issues that the book raises:
1. Are babies’ proto-linguistic sounds language? There are two views here. One is that pre-linguistic babies can think and are trying to express their thoughts using sounds, but lack the capacity to form recognizable words. The other is that, lacking a language, babies are not capable of thought. As a result, the sounds they utter are better assimilated to expressive behavior, like crying, than to linguistic utterances.
2. Can babies think? Some philosophers think that thought is coextensive with language but others deny this. All philosophers would agree that lots of creatures have feelings that they can express through a variety of different types of behavior and even communicate to others. But some still hold that only language users are capable of genuine thought.
3. How do babies learn language? Babies accomplish an amazing feat is learning to speak a language in only a few years. Some philosophers think that language learning is something that takes place on the basis of empirical evidence that babies have. Others think that babies have innate mental structures into which they plug the evidence. This innate structure makes it easier and hence possible for them to learn a language.
4. Do animal sounds constitute a language? Although many philosophers were very skeptical of this idea, there is growing evidence that some of the “higher” animals, like apes and porpoises, are able to communicate with one another. Of course, even if we acknowledge that there is complex communication going on, that doesn’t settle the issue of whether those animals are using a language. Which leads into the next question:
5. What is necessary for something to be a language? This is a hard question and there are different views about it. It’s clear that some features of English are not necessary. For example, a language does not have to be spoken, as sign-language shows. This example also shows that languages do not have to be written. But what about grammar? Does a language have to be capable of making assertions? Formulating questions? Expressing feeling? What about more formal features, like expressing things that have not previously been expressed (this is called “generativity”?) Is mathematics a language? Obviously, there are lots of issues here.
The MLK Session
Knuggle Bunny shows us Trixie, a baby, during the process of her learning to speak her first word. Before she has uttered that word, she does use sounds, specifically “Aggle flaggle klabble” among other expressions. A first and crucial question is whether she has thereby said anything. That is, is “baby-talk” – of which “Aggle flaggle klabble” is a good example – a special “baby language” or is it essentially a piece of behavior like crying. This is a good issue to begin your discussion with the children. You can ask them whether they think Trixie is speaking when she says, “Aggle flaggle klabble!”
The idea is to get them to see that there are good reasons on both sides: some can support the idea that she is using language because she is trying to communicate with her father; others might deny she is trying to communicate at all, but merely exhibiting distress behavior, like the crying she later does.
It might be useful to create a chart for them to use. Tell them that you want them to think about what it would mean if either of these were the case.
Is Trixie speaking or just showing she’s unhappy?
|| Showing Unhappiness
|| Express the unhappiness
|| Uses three “words”
|| Doesn’t matter
| Acompanying Behavior
|| Points, gestures
|| Additional gestures
| What's in her mind
|| Thought (Left Snuffle B)
|| Feeling (Unhappy)
A related issue is whether it is possible to think without using language. Again, you can ask them whether Trixie is able to think a thought without being able to express it in words. Some philosophers hold the generally unpopular view that thought is coextensive with language, so that it is not possible to think without having language. Even these philosophers would admit that it is possible to feel without language, so they would just say that Trixie is expressing her feelings using behavior that is “proto-linguistic,” i.e. behavior that is on the way to becoming language.
While the kids are thinking about whether children can think before they have learned how to speak, you can ask them some related questions:
1. Do animals think?
2. Are animal sounds a form of language? So, when a dog barks, is the dog actually saying something?
3. Does language have to use sounds? (You can help them by asking if they know sign language.)