life is a circle
even from the beginning
fate’s wheel keeps turning
haiku by M. Nakazato LaFreniere
Hey, did you know that the way you tend to draw a circle is cultural? Internationally across the world, almost everybody makes a circle with a single stroke. Most North Americans, Korean and Europeans draw the circle counter-clockwise or widdershins as the Wiccans like to say. Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese draw the circle clockwise.
Google put up a AI sketchpad Quick! Draw giving googlers a chance to teach a machine to draw. Thu-Huong Ha and Nikhil Sonnad used the public Quick!Draw data of how 50 million people drew shapes in a Quartz article to discern how folks created circles internationally. China, however, has banned Google so that data is from a 1985 study.
Ha and Sonnad concluded the way we create circles is based on the language writing system we are taught. It would be interesting to observe how three- or four-year-olds draw circles before they are taught to write to see if they draw circles both ways (widdershins and clockwise) until they learn to write.
Babies can make 6,000 phenomes
This is inline with some articles I remember reading long time ago. Babies can make a wide range of sounds but as they learn a language, they gradually stop making some sounds not within the language range. Cross-culturally babies make the same kinds of sounds until 10 months old then their sounds narrow to those more frequent to those spoken around them. Originally able to recognize and make 6,000 phenomes, a baby surrounded by English speakers will become sensitive to the 40 common phenomes they hear everyday.
When we are born, our vocal tracts are more like primate and other mammals which is why babies can suck milk and breathe at the same time. With the tongue mostly in the oral cavity, they can lock the larynx to create a sealed airway through the nose. As we develop, our tongue and larynx positions descend. Once they drop, we can’t drink and breath at the same time. (Is it my imagination or do I hear the drinkers in the group saying awww?)
Around 6-8 years old, they finish dropping into a uniquely human position unlike the primates and mammals. At this age, children’s fuzzy pronunciations start to clear up because they can finally make the vowels sounds [a], [i], and [u]. Pretty much every language has the sounds [p], [t], [k], [a], [i] and [u]. The rest is a free for all. We don’t think about but sounds depend on tongue flexibility and palate position as well as other factors.
Does this mean that while the body physically changes into adulthood, that language changes the shape of the mouth to make it easier to speak one’s native language, making it hard for adults to speak without an accent? Nope. The problem is habit. We learn certain ways to make a sound growing up that efficiently replicates the sound of our native language. That learning happens so early that for most of us, it becomes an unconscious habit. Since we are not aware of how we do make the sounds that we do, it makes it hard to learn sounds we are not accustomed to making.
I remember teaching English in Japan, I had a student with a PhD who had to deliver a paper at a Dental conference in Europe in English on how long radiation lasts in teeth based on Hiroshima survivors. We didn’t have time to focus on her being able to converse in English using the paper’s vocabulary. She knew the meaning of the paper; she’d written it with her colleagues.
We focused only on the speech delivery: how to position the tongue to make certain sounds and the rhythm needed to make a sentence sound natural (Robert Frost poems were great for that). I’d feel in my mouth how I made the sound and draw (a very cartoonish!) picture of my tongue, teeth and palette for where I felt things happened. I think because of her PhD in dentistry, she had a very grounded understanding of the mouth which aided her in understanding my drawings. She memorized the sounds of that whole speech from top to bottom until she could rattle it off straight through. She sounded pretty good and her accent was fairly close to mine.
At the conference, the speech went great. But afterwards, people came up to congratulate her, babbling in English because they assumed from her delivery that she could speak English very well. She could read English pretty well especially in her field but her ears were not used to hearing English and she couldn’t understand what her new friends were saying. So after the conference, she continued taking classes so that she could start to converse in English. She hoped at the next conference to be able to converse with her friends.
Adults can gain stereovision
But there is no argument that it is easier for children up to a certain age to learn other languages. There are different theories of why this is so. However, the theories of our minds and bodies being set by a certain age are beginning to fall apart. Scientists studying the eye and brain development knew that if you did not develop stereovision by early childhood, you never would. However Susan R. Barry learned to see in 3d at age 48 — which she herself disbelieved since as a professor in physical medicine and rehabilitation she’d read studies proving it was impossible. Doctors who had claimed they were able to help adult gain stereovision as adult had been dismissed as charlatans over the year. The paper on Barry’s visual recovery became a tipping point with scholars studying how to help adults recover 3d vision.
It’s not so much that we can’t change and learn as adults. It’s just harder because we accept a lot of things as true but even scientific thinking gets turned on it’s head sometimes. We believe something is possible or not at certain ages and that affects how we learn. We have habits that have carved neural pathways in our brains that takes work to retrain. Anxiety, belief that something is impossible, habits, and clinging to an identity of ourselves as being a certain way all affect the difficulty in learning and retaining new knowledge and abilities.
We need to go back to the beginning when we could make 6,000 sounds and anything was possible.
September is here, the time when kids go back to school and hopefully learn new things. Maybe as adults we should make September our Knowledge New Year and state our resolution on what we intend to learn this semester (whether or not we are in school) or improve our knowledge in. I am learning blogging (I only started in July) and hmmm, thinking about it. What would you like to learn?
Torque response in psychotics and normal controls: A study in an Asian culture by Yan Shan-Ming, Li Tianqi, Ji Jingsu, Zhu Jingfang, Zhang Daqian, Qian Jifeng, and Michael Alan Taylor, Comprehensive Psychology, July-August 1985, Vol. 26, Iss. 4, pgs 342-344
How do you draw a circle? We analyzed 100,000 drawings to show how culture shapes our instincts by Thu-Huong Ha and Nikhil Sonnad, Quartz, June 15, 2017
Quick, Draw!, an AI experiment built by Jonas Jongejan, Henry Rowley, Takashi Kawashima, Jongmin Kim, Nick Fox-Gieg, with friends at Google Creative Lab and Data Arts Team.
0-12 Months: All About Sounds, Multi-cultural Children’s Association
Tracking the evolution of language and speech: Comparing Vocal Tracts to Identify Speech Capabilities by Philip Lieberman and Robert McCarthy, Expedition Magazine, University of Pennsylvania Museum, Summer 2007.
Critical period hypothesis, Wikipedia
Stereopsis recovery, Wikipedia
Susan R. Barry, Wikipedia
Also published on Medium.