It’s Like Talking To A Bunch Of Animals

| Baltimore, MD, USA | Learning | January 6, 2015

(I am a teaching assistant for an introductory class to offset my graduate school tuition. I often have the problem of undergraduate students thinking they can breeze through the subject. It is actually a tough but interesting subject. I am used to seeing a whole bunch of people at exam time that I don’t recognize, since they never come to class.)

Me: *handing out graded exams* “A lot of you did not do very well on this. Please review your exam carefully. You will see some of this material again.”

(There is some surprised murmuring. Some of the slacker students are genuinely surprised that they failed the exam for the class they never show up to.)

Slacker #1: “I don’t understand why you marked this wrong.”

Me: “Which one?”

Slacker #1: “You asked for the difference between language and animal communication and I said there wasn’t a difference.”

Me: “That’s why you got it wrong. They are not the same.”

Slacker #1: “Yes, they are! Oh, my god! This is such bull-s***!”

Me: “If you had attended the lectures or read the first chapter of the textbook, that was actually a section. Any other questions?”

Slacker #2: “Um… you marked mine wrong about the ‘EVOLUTION’ of language.”

(She puts a lot of emphasis on that word and used air quotes.)

Me: “Okay? And what is your question?”

Slacker #2: “Well, I said that it can be learned by anyone or anything.”

Me: “Which isn’t true. In class, we went over an example of how human evolution was different from the evolution of the chimpanzee. Our vocal chords are lower in the throat. We also went over the theory of Universal Grammar, which is unique to humans. You can’t teach either of those things to any animal. We also went over examples of researchers attempting to teach animals to use language.”

Slacker #2: “But you can’t say that it’s 100% true when evolution is a theory.”

Me: “So is universal grammar. This is a linguistics class, not a theology class.”

Slacker #2: “Well, I don’t believe in evolution, so I don’t think it’s fair you marked that as wrong.”

Me: “Look, you being delusional doesn’t change the facts. Human vocal chords used to look more like chimpanzee vocal chords back in our evolutionary history. Paleontologists have fossil records that chart a lot of these changes. That change is why we can speak and why we can’t eat and breathe at the same time like chimpanzees can. We went over this in class.”

Slacker #2: “You’re being very disrespectful!”

Me: “Then leave. Drop the class. You’re the one who chose to go to a science school and then get offended by the science talk. Are there any legitimate questions?”

Slacker #3: “Umm… I’m just really confused by the animal communication versus language thing.”

Me: “Abstraction is the difference. Animals communicate immediate needs. Humans can communicate hypothetical, future, or past needs or ideas.”

Slacker #3: “Yeah, I don’t get it.”

Me: “We went into this in great detail during class.”

Slacker #3: “I, uh, I guess I missed it?”

Me: “It’s also in the book.”

Slacker #3: “Oh… I, uh… I didn’t see it in there.”

Me: “Chapter One. Section Three: Animal Communication.”

Slacker #3: “Oh… right.”

Slacker #4: “Okay, but like, animals CAN talk, so you CAN teach animals to do language.”

Me: “Animals can’t talk. Vocal chords.”

Slacker #4: *getting really arrogant* “Yeah? Well, my dog can talk. She can tell me when she’s hungry or wants to go for a walk.”

Me: “Again, that is IMMEDIATE needs, not language. She barks because she’s hungry right now. She barks because she wants to pee outside right now. She can’t tell you what happened two weeks ago or what she might want to do tomorrow.”

Slacker #4: *laughing* “Uh, yeah, she can! Shows what YOU know!”

Me: “If you are hearing your dog talking, then you need to head over to the psychology department…”

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