What’s the Best Way to Record the Last Child Acquiring Gavagai?

Clifton Pye

pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu

Quine (1960) famously introduced the language Gavagai into the literature on the philosophy of language as an argument for radical translation. We live in an era of rapid language loss when linguists estimate that half of the world's languages will vanish by the end of this century (Campbell & Belew 2018; Crystal 2000; Krauss 1992). In an era of rapid language loss, the issue of how we should best go about the business of documenting the speech of the last children acquiring languages like Gavagai assumes some urgency.

Quine’s thought experiment forces us to take stock of our assumptions about the best practices for documenting child language by asking how well these assumptions apply in recording the last children to acquire any language. Experimental methods will not be suitable because they require eight to ten subjects who have been screened for developmental delays and language proficiency. In situations where only one or two children remain, who are acquiring the indigenous language, and where the adult language itself is poorly documented, an experiment is not possible. A context of radical translation exposes the background knowledge about a language that is necessary in order to perform an experiment. Where this knowledge is limited, experimental methods will also be of limited use.

The best option for documenting the last children to acquire a language like Gavagai is to record their speech in some fashion. Ideally, we could equip them with a microphone and recording device that would record everything they say and everything they hear over some period of time. In a situation of radical translation, however, we face more than a little difficulty communicating the goals of the project to the children’s parents, and the parents face even greater difficulties communicating their concerns to the researchers. The parents might be in a dispute with one of their neighbors who would view the parents’ collaboration with outsiders as a pretext for violence. Any investigation in indigenous communities must tread carefully around the possibility of such disputes.

Assuming that we are fortunate enough to record the last child acquiring Gavagai we also face the challenge of interpreting what the child is saying. The usual practice here is to transcribe the child’s recordings and translate the language into a language that is spoken more widely. Ideally, we might ask one of the child’s family members to work with us on the transcription and translation. Unfortunately, speakers of languages like Gavagai often participate in marginal economies that require their labor for many hours outside the home to tend herds and crops, collect firewood and water, or inside the home to prepare meals and weave cloth. They may not have time for transcription and translation. Even if it is technically feasible to record the children all day, it may not be possible to transcribe everything they say.

Children living in marginal societies speak 80% of the world's languages (Eberhard et al. 2019). Their families are the most vulnerable to economic and ecological displacement. Documenting how these children acquire their languages becomes more urgent with global climate change. This situation leaves us with the question of what is the best way to record the last children acquiring a language? The best answer to this question is to see how investigators have handled this question in the past (c.f. Allen 1996; Cook 2006; Demuth 1996; Kelly et al. 2015; Kroeber 1916; Pye 2017; Schieffelin 1985)..


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Feb. 19, 2020

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