Technically Speaking: On Equipping and Evaluating “Unnatural” Language Learners

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Reno, Joshua
American Anthropologist
language development , semiotics , materiality , posthumanism , linguistic ideology
This article compares different communicative trials for apes in captivity and children with autism in order to investigate how ideological assumptions about linguistic agency and impairment are constructed and challenged in practice. To the extent that Euro-American techniques of “unnatural” language instruction developed during the Cold War era have been successful, it is because communicative interactions are broken down into basic components, and would-be language learners are equipped with materials, devices, and habits that make up for their distinct bio/social deficits. Such linguistic equipment can present a challenge to the ideological presumption of a subject inherently gifted with the rudiments of talk, that is, the human as naturally speaking. However, this ideology can reassert itself if the active contribution of unnatural language learners to their technoscientific trials is downplayed. In order to counter this tendency, I propose that speech acts be reimagined as part of a more encompassing semiotic ensemble.