Monday, January 25, 2016

Are gibbons human beings?

One of the most interesting investigations I have recently come across is the decipherment of the hoo sounds produced by gibbons. Gibbons are apes that live mainly in Southeast Asia. They are known for their loud songs but they can produce also a kind of whispers known as “hoo calls”. Hoo calls are difficult to distinguish by the human ear but recently a group of researchers succeeded to record and analyse them by using modern computer technology. The gibbons investigated were groups of lar gibbons in North-eastern Thailand. They were followed during four months from the morning till the evening. The sounds were recorded and the researchers noted the event that elicited the response. Back home they managed to distinguish and analyse the “gibbonish”and to relate the hoo-calls to the events that had elicited them with advanced computer techniques, so that it was no longer gibberish for them.

The results are surprising and important. The researchers could identify more than 450 hoo sounds and connect them with the situations in which they were uttered. In this way they found that – and now I quote from an article in the Science Daily (see below) – “distinct hoo calls are made in response to specific events, such as foraging and encountering neighbours, and that subtle differences even distinguish between different predators when used as a warning.” For instance, the gibbons are able to warn their companions for tigers and leopards with a sound meaning something like “big cat”. They use different other hoos for specified other predators (like snakes and eagles). They can also mobilize other gibbons for going to look for food together. They have hoo calls for meeting together, greetings, delimiting their territory etc.
As the researchers say, this study is very relevant in the debate on the evolution of human speech, seen as an ability to produce context-specific sounds for communicating meanings to other recipients. But if gibbons have a kind of speech – and so it seems – I have a question: Is a gibbon a sort of human being? If we follow Aristotle the answer will be “yes”, for in the Politica (Book One, Part II) he says that man is the only animal whom nature has endowed with the gift of speech. In order to show that a gibbon is a man, let me formulate a syllogism in the sense of Aristotle:

All gibbons are endowed with the gift of speech
Only man is endowed with the gift of speech
So gibbons are men

I think that there are good reasons not to accept the conclusion, but then one of the premises must be false. As it looks now most likely the second premise (minor) is. But does it make a difference whether or not a gibbon is a sort of man? Look around: Sometimes we get the impression that men behave “like animals”. Actually this expression is an insult to the animals. What a mesh we, men, have made of this world. One of the best developed techniques of human behaviour is waging war. We are more and more destroying our own environment in that way that it can lead to the end of human civilization in the long run. And before this will happen probably we’ll have destroyed already the life world of the gibbons, because we’ll have irretrievably damaged their forest habitat. Then not only another precious species will have become extinct but also a unique language will have gone, and with it we’ll have lost a part of our own cultural heritage.

Sources: The original publication of the research:; an article in Science Daily:; a Dutch article in

Monday, January 18, 2016

Linguistic relativity

The flags of the Netherlands (left) and Luxemburg

Ask a Dutchman what the colours of the Dutch flag are, and he will say “Red, white and blue”. Ask a Dutchman what the colours of the flag of Luxemburg are, and he will say “Red white and blue”. Yet there is a difference, as we can see in the picture above: The blue of the Luxembourgian flag is lighter than the blue of the Dutch flag, so when we would compare the flags we would describe the blues as light blue and dark blue. Nevertheless the difference doesn’t seem really important for Dutchmen, and on days that the Dutch hang out their flags, here and there you see flags with light blue bars and everybody sees it as a Dutch national flag and nobody cares that actually it’s not right.
Now ask a Russian to name the colours of the flags of the Netherlands and Luxemburg. If he knows them, I am for 100% sure that he will say that the Dutch flag has a dark blue bar and the Luxembourgian one a light blue bar. Why? Because in Russian there is no word for “blue”, but there is a word for dark blue (siniy) and one for light blue (goluboy) and just these words describe exactly the bluish bars in these flags. By chance, the Russian flag has the same colours as the Dutch one although in a different order,  so I think that the Russians will not make the mistake of keeping a flag with a light blue bar for the present Russian national flag, for the simple reason that it has a different colour for them.
I think that this is an example of the idea that there is a relationship between language and culture and that language guides your interpretation of the world. It explains why many Dutch say that the Netherlands and Luxemburg have the same flag, and that they are not very precise in determining the shade of blue of the bluish bar of these flags.
A few days after I had written my blog last week, I read an interview with the Dutch linguistic researcher Jolien Francken. If we think an idea, we must be able to find back in the brain where we think it and one of the results of her investigations is that we arrange what we see in the world around us in the “language section” of our brain: The temporal lobe. This is an indication, so Francken, that categorizing is a semantic, linguistic operation. This is not obvious, for other researchers think that we arrange what we see in the visual cortex, so the section of the brain for visual perception. Francken’s findings are a physical sign that there is a relation between language, culture and the way the world is for us. Initially, we don’t make a copy of the world in the head, but what is in the head makes how the worlds looks like to us. But let us not see this deterministic; a failure that has been made so often in the past. There is a tendency to adapt the world to the categories in the head, but we are flexible enough to adapt our categories if they don’t fit the world. But how difficult it can be to change our categories (and ideas) once we have fixed them in the head! Prejudices are of that kind.
As Francken says in the interview: “My findings are interesting for the principle of linguistic relativity. Everybody of us sees the same, but it is our language that steers our attention and how we categorize the world. It happens very automatically and maybe you have less influence on it than you may think.” However, categorization is not only an unconscious brain proces. It is also intentionally used by others who want to influence our thoughts, like politicians. This has become known as “framing”. For instance, US president George W. Bush used the expression of “War on Terror” on purpose in order to justify a global military, political, legal and conceptual struggle against terrorism. This has been retracted by Barrack Obama, who prefers to focus his efforts on specific persons, networks and the like. Or take a certain Dutch politician who tries to make that we automatically associate the word “Islam” with the word “terrorism”. But wasn’t it already George Orwell who warned us in 1949 in his novel 1984 for this use, if not misuse, of language?

Source: Erica Renckens, “Taal beïnvloedt hoe je de wereld waarneemt” (interview with Jolien Francken) on .

Monday, January 11, 2016

Keep fit: Learn a language

Knowing languages is important. Everybody will agree, I think. That’s why governments stimulate foreign language learning. The value of language is that it’s a way of exchanging meanings with other people. Language is a passport to the world: It helps you discover meanings that other people have used for building up their social worlds and to enter into relationships with them (and they with you).
A language is not limited to a certain area or culture. Everyone can learn every language, despite his or her geographical and cultural background; and isn’t it so that some languages, like English – from England to India – or French – from France to West-Africa – are used in different cultures? Nevertheless languages express cultural attainments. It’s a well-known that Inuit languages have many words for expressing types of snow, more than any other language. And Dutch, to take my own mother tongue, has more words for describing types of watercourses and canals and uses more nuances in that field than, for example, English. If a language is spoken in several parts of the world, it can happen that variants or dialects develop adapted to the local cultures and habits. So there is a narrow relation between a culture and the language used by the bearers of that culture, although it doesn’t need to be a one-to-one relationship. However, it seems not too bold to say that a language expresses the identity of the bearers of a culture. This is one reason why it is bad policy to forbid a minority language in order to try to prevent a separatist movement. Just the official and practical recognition of a regional language can help prevent that such a region wants to become independent from the country it belongs to: If you are free to express your culture, there is less reason to separate.
All this makes clear why learning languages is important: The more languages you know, the easier it is to communicate with people belonging to other cultures but also the easier it is to understand these other cultures. Learning a language is always a kind of introduction to a culture – not counting the fact that it often leads to a growing interest in the culture of the speakers of the language you learn.
And on the individual level? Many people initially grow up in one language and only later– at school age or thereafter – they learn a second one and maybe a third one, a fourth one or even more. This makes  that there is a narrow relationship between a person’s native langue and identity. Sometimes this pops up in different ways. So a person in danger of life or in other such difficult circumstances may unintentionally begun to speak his native language or dialect when being in another language environment. And you feel yourself more at ease when speaking your native dialect or language. So why giving yourself the trouble of learning other languages in case there is hardly any reason to expect that you’ll use them? Or why keeping fresh the languages learned at school if you actually don’t need them? For instance, for native speakers of English there is no practical (communicative) reason to learn other languages, for their mother tongue has become the lingua franca in almost every corner of the world (although knowing the local language will help you understand the local culture, as said). This may be true but as it has come out knowing several languages is not only convenient: Just as physical exercise and a good physical condition supports your physical health and helps you to recover after an illness, learning and knowing several languages is good for your mental health. It trains your brain and keeps it fit. It helps you to see the world from other points of view and understand other cultures. And you see how difficult it can be for immigrants and tourists to learn and speak your language. Is that “all”? Certainly not, for just as physical exercise makes your body stronger and increases your capacity for recovery after illness, so does mental exercise for your brain. Learning, enlarges your neural network. So your network of neural connections is more extended if you have learnt more languages. Training your brain has a preventive effect (like lessening the chance to get Alzheimer’s disease), but it can also be useful if you have to recover from a brain disease. For as recent research has shown, your chance to recover from a stroke is much bigger if you have learned at least one other language. According to a new study, bilingual stroke patients were twice as likely as those who spoke one language to get back their normal cognitive functions. Why? The reason for the difference appears to be a feature of the brain called “cognitive reserve”, or, in other words, just the extra network of neural connections you have built up by your language study. Keep fit so learn a language.

If you know Russian:

Monday, January 04, 2016

New Year Resolutions

For many people the end of the year is the time to look back and to see what went well and what went wrong. And they think about their bad habits and what they want to have changed. They think also about what they could do in the year to come. When this end-of-the-year evaluation has been done – it may have been long or short; deep or shallow – many people take a kind of decision in the sense that they say to themselves: “I’ll do this or that. It‘s very important to me, and I’ll really do”. So, they take one or more New Year resolutions. I must say that I never do. Why should I? For taking decisions that will influence my life the date of January 1 has no special meaning for me. I simply take decisions because they have to be taken (or I let the occasion pass to take them at the right moment, with all consequences this failure can bring with it). But many need a special date for making promises to themselves and they think that January 1 is a good one, because it’s a tradition. However, because we are humans most of us will have forgotten their resolutions or have given them up by the time you read this (which will be already on one of the first days of January for my most dedicated followers). Why? For people normally keep their promises, especially if they are more than superficial commitments, but when they make promises to themselves, they often fail to keep them.
Many websites make us clear why making New Year resolutions doesn’t work. For instance, Ramit Sethi tells us in his blog that they fail because usually they are unspecific, they are unrealistic, and they are based on willpower, not on systems (not well integrated in your daily life). I could add that there is also a lack of external pressure: “Force” by others or by the circumstances to execute them. And often, as another website says, the timing of the decision is wrong (and that is, as said already, one of the reasons that I don’t take New Year resolutions, but if I do take decisions it is at the moment they need to be taken).
Has it sense then to take New Year resolutions? Year’s end is neither an end nor is it a beginning. Life is a stream and it can be dangerous to stop a stream for it might lead to a flooding or make that the stream goes in the wrong direction. This sounds more dramatic then it may be in real life, but, for example, if we too often fail in our intentions we can get the feeling that we are unable to complete what we want. Or as Ramit Sethi says it: We tend to distrust ourselves and you don’t believe in yourself any longer. Of course, failed New Year’s resolutions are not more than small contributions to such a feeling but why to take them if it is not necessary and advisable to take them now? In addition, I just said that life – especially as it appears in our actions and decisions – is a stream, namely a stream that mainly flows unconsciously. Isn’t it so that we take many decisions just unconsciously and that it often happens that these decisions are the best; even the important ones? Take counsel of your pillow is a saying that expresses this idea, and when you wake up the right decision pops up. However, this doesn’t depend on a certain date but on the urgent need that something has to be done.
Then you must not take New Year resolutions any longer? Well, you can do but don’t take them too seriously.

Link to the blog by Ramit Sethi: