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It all starts by looking a baby right in the eyes

The origin of language stemmed from relationships, not genes

By Ruth Walker / September 14, 2004



Here is a book that gives new meaning to the old saying, "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world." Its authors, one a psychiatrist and the other a psychologist and philosopher, have teamed up to tackle the momentous question of how humans developed language. Fearing not to challenge some of the heavyweights of modern science, from Jean Piaget to Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, they present their own theory: The development of language is connected primarily with affect rather than cognition, with the emotional learning that occurs in infants in the arms of those who love them. That is, language is rooted not in genes, not in the wiring of brains, but in behaviors we have learned over millenniums.

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Phrases like "emotional intelligence" and "the feeling brain" sound less oxymoronic today than they did before they appeared in the titles of groundbreaking works by Daniel Goleman and, more recently, Antonio Damasio. But in "The First Idea," Stanley Greenspan and Stuart Shanker contend that "emotional intelligence," as it is coming to be understood, is only one of the "roots and branches" of intelligence itself. "The trunk," they argue, is a set of abilities they refer to as the "functional-emotional developmental capacities."

The critical concept in "The First Idea" is what the authors call "co-regulated emotional signaling." By this they mean the affectionate back-and-forth between baby and caregiver. Mom and Baby make eye contact, and when Mom smiles at Baby, Baby smiles back.

It would be simplistic to say that the authors see games of peekaboo and patty-cake as the foundations of civilization - but it would not be completely wide of the mark. It is just this sort of nonverbal "conversation," the authors argue, that was essential to the development of language among early humans and remains essential to each child's learning to talk today.

Later on, children progress to "shared social problem solving," by which the authors mean such things as a toddler gesturing toward the cookie jar and getting her father to understand what she wants. Even before language, there is a vocabulary of gesture and vocalization, and a skill of reading facial expression, gestures, and body language of other people, of falling into their rhythms, that very young children develop.

Mastery of these helps children regulate or modulate their emotions; they are able to point to the cookie jar instead of just screaming and leaving their parents to guess what they want, for instance. And this regulation leads to the formation of "ideas," in the special sense the authors use: "An idea is an image that has been freed from a fixed, immediate action and is invested with affects or emotions (i.e., intent) to give it meaning." Mental development is about "taming emotions into signals."

Putting it in more concrete terms, the authors offer as an example a child who lights up at the prospect of going outdoors - but knows she must get her shoes on first. "The child learns how to say 'shoe' in the context of her excitement at being able to go outside and explore a whole new world. Otherwise, the incentive to learn the word is slight."

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