May 15, 2005

Linguistic pseudoscience lives in academia!

I'm not talking here about the silly things pundits say about language, or about how your linguistic theory (as opposed to mine) is so far out on the fringe that it's actually pseudoscientific. Here the topic is genuine linguistic pseudoscience, in this case claims that people can remember (and speak) languages that they spoke in their previous incarnations. Usually such topics are reported in breathless tones in the popular press or in depressingly popular books written by psychiatrists or non-academics, but this example, though in the popular press, is by someone with academic and maybe even linguistic credentials. A friend of Bill Poser's brought it to Bill's attention, and Bill passed it on to me because I am (I think) the only Language Logger who has published in a serious linguistics journal on languages of reincarnation (see an earlier Language Log discussion of this topic here).

The article, entitled "The Practical Linguist/Recalling Past Languages from Past Lives", was written by Marshall R. Childs, Ed.D., who "teaches TESOL...and other subjects, such as psychology, at Temple University Japan, Tokyo", as a Special to The Daily Yomiuri, an English-language newspaper published by the publisher of a major Japanese newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun. Childs is not only an academic, but apparently an applied linguist, so his credulity is more surprising than it would be if he were, say, a physicist. (Lots of physicists, for some reason, seem to be eager to believe just about any nutty thing about language. But psychiatrists are the highly-educated champions in this domain.)

Childs says that he is "keeping an open mind on the existence and nature of reincarnation", but he is obviously much impressed by the work of a psychiatrist named Brian L. Weiss, who uses hypnoptic regression to "past lives" to treat his patients. Childs goes on to discuss xenoglossy, defined as the ability to speak a language that you haven't learned in your present lifetime, and its most-published proponent, the psychiatrist Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia. Childs is wowed by both doctors' eminence and expertise, observing that "Scholars as distinguished as Weiss and Stevenson do not normally embrace mystical ideas."

Here he is sadly mistaken. He describes in some detail, quite uncritically, the case of Gretchen, as reported in Stevenson's 1984 book Unlearned Languages: New Studies in Xenoglossy (published by The University Press of Virginia!). The few details Stevenson "discovered" about the life of this purported 19th-century German girl are wildly improbable, and he offers bizarre speculations about why her German (as "remembered" by his modern subject) is so very poor. Of course absolute proof of non-reincarnation in this case and others is unavailable, and one can always account for weaknesses in the subjects' language skills by the presumed difficulty of speaking a language you haven't spoken for the past hundred and fifty years or so -- or, in the case of one of Weiss's patients, 4,000 years. But abandoning skepticism in these cases is rash, especially as most of the questions addressed to "Gretchen" in German were yes/no questions -- easily recognizable as such by their intonation, even if you don't know more than a few isolated words of German -- and her answers ("Ja", "Nein") could not be checked for accuracy, since she was the only person present at the interviews who could reasonably be expected to know anything about the details of her 19th-century "life". Now if only they had managed to find a modern reincarnation of one of "Gretchen's" relatives who could be age-regressed to the same earlier context to carry on a conversation with her...

Childs is impressed with "Gretchen's" "championship performance", though. I can only conclude that he either doesn't know any German or simply didn't bother to study the transcripts that Stevenson provides as evidence of her ability to speak the language. I've done this (in a 1987 article in The Skeptical Inquirer), and it's all too clear that "Gretchen" does not in fact know more than a handful of isolated words of German, and that she had both opportunity and motivation to learn these words in her current lifetime. Childs also wonders why historians, linguists, and anthropologists are not "flocking to the doors of people who can give testimony from previous lives."

Finally, he says that his Practical Linguist column is intended to "promote fruitful collaboration among theorists and practitioners of language teaching in Japan", and that he plans to follow this column with others reporting on similarly "amazing language learners". Heaven help the theorists and practitioners of language teaching in Japan.

Posted by Sally Thomason at May 15, 2005 08:59 AM