Language book for cavemen?
April 13, 2010 10:51 AM   Subscribe

Have there been any attempts to make a book designed to teach a language (whether natural or constructed), without reference to another language?

I'd imagine it'd use pictures with labels for the basic words, and I can imagine how you might teach numbers (boxes with dots in them, with the symbol/word at the bottom... if you stuck them together, it'd probably be obvious). But some concepts are a bit more difficult to express--abstractions, stuff like air and atoms, etc. The grammar doesn't seem too difficult to express, since it could probably be picked up by example.

It wouldn't necessarily have to be dead obvious, but it should be decipherable by someone both interested and intelligent.
posted by Jebdm to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Aren't most books intended to teach, for example, English to young children in America in English? I'm not sure if I'm missing something?
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:54 AM on April 13, 2010

I'm thinking of just about every board book for toddlers. However, you'd somehow have to convey the sounds that letters make (presuming a phonetic alphabet), which means either you couldn't learn from just the book, or you would mentally be referring to knowledge of the sounds that letters make in another language.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:00 AM on April 13, 2010

Think "a class full of students who all have different native languages", not so much "cavemen." (My mom teaches ESL; first languages in a typical class might include French, German, Spanish, Vietnamese, Amharic, Farsi, Urdu, Bengali, Swedish...plenty more. Therefore, guess what language the textbook's in.)
posted by clavicle at 11:01 AM on April 13, 2010

There was a whole series of paperback books about learning with pictures back in the 1960s. It used stick figure drawings and was published by Pocket Books.
posted by JJ86 at 11:06 AM on April 13, 2010

The series was called "*insert language here* Through Pictures" and you can easily find copies at used book stores.
posted by JJ86 at 11:09 AM on April 13, 2010

Response by poster: Sorry, I guess I wasn't clear; the intent is that someone alone, without a teacher, other people, or a reference culture, could learn from this book. Imagine someone stranded on a deserted island, all alone, without any memories of language, other people, or civilization at all. (Ignoring the "critical period" theory, where kids raised by wolves and whatnot can't ever pick up a language properly.)

Or perhaps this book is getting picked up by an alien, or a computer. What I'm looking for is examples of attempts to convey very abstract concepts (existence, thought, goals, wants, etc.) without the entity you're writing to having any experience with language.

(Perhaps I'm overthinking this a bit, and typical kids' language books would work.)
posted by Jebdm at 11:10 AM on April 13, 2010

The Rosetta Stone language-learning software professes to do just what you propose.
posted by coppermoss at 11:23 AM on April 13, 2010

Same same but different, there's the Pioneer Plaque which uses pictures to pass along info about humans to aliens.

You might find some interesting ideas in checking out what SETI has done to try to communicate concepts to aliens.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:29 AM on April 13, 2010

Best answer: Yeah, it might be worth looking at the Wikipedia article on communication with extraterrestrial intelligence (CETI), which mentions a few attempts that have been made with that goal in mind. However, most of those seem to be relatively simple symbolic messages that don't attempt to teach an entire language -- seems like that would require a pretty substantial amount of effort.

Also, you may find the answers to this past AskMe question interesting: How do we jump into a closed set?
posted by teraflop at 11:40 AM on April 13, 2010

If you're asking about general 2nd/foreign language learning, there is a method (sometimes called the "communicative method", if i remember correctly) that aims to teach a new language without using an intermediary language.

I'm a native English speaker and I actually did my first year of learning Hungarian using a textbook that did not have an intermediary language, and my instructor used virtually no English after the first day. The textbook relies a lot on diagrams and illustrations, and there was plenty of drawing, miming, and acting-out on the teacher's part in class.

However we did have to buy a hungarian-english dictionary separately, so at the same time it wasn't a pure example of what you're talking about, but still, it is an example of how this could sort of work in real life....
posted by leticia at 12:02 PM on April 13, 2010

Best answer: Seems like the teacher would need to have some idea of the context that the learner will be learning in. If the teacher has some idea of what the learner is encountering around them or what the learner is familiar with, then you can draw on those overlapping experiences to teach a language. If there isn't overlap, or the teacher can't be sure of what overlap there is, then I'm not sure it's possible. In order to have any hope of teaching something, you need to have some kind of commonality on which to build understanding.

If someone knows what a tree is, you can point to a tree or the picture of a tree and tell them the word in a different language. But, if someone doesn't know what a tree is, then it's much more difficult because they have to be introduced to the concept of a tree first. Now, imagine if someone (a caveman) doesn't even have a concept of representational illustrations (drawings)... In that circumstance, I can't imagine how you could teach anything through a simple book.
posted by ghostiger at 12:13 PM on April 13, 2010

Best answer: When I first leaned Māori at school, it was taught by something called the rākau ("stick") method. It used Cuisenaire rods which were ubiquitous in New Zealand schools at the time. In my dim and distant memory (this was going on 30 years ago) there was little to no English involved. Instead, we learned via short sentences in Māori only. You can demonstrate an awful lot with those rods if you put your mind to it.

The Wikipedia article I linked to mentions a "silent method" which sounds intriguing and also is English-free, but doesn't jibe with my memories of the rākau method exactly.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:25 PM on April 13, 2010

Hellen Keller immediately comes to mind, but I'm wondering how much of the touch-based communication thing could be translated to book form or learned without a teacher present.
posted by mattholomew at 1:13 PM on April 13, 2010

Following from i_am_joe's_spleen's link to the Cuisenaire rods, there is "The Silent Way." The Wikipedia article isn't terribly well written so it's hard to say, but it seems to approach what you're after.
posted by MadamM at 1:43 PM on April 13, 2010

Lingua Latina, Per Se Illustrata--inter alia.
posted by everichon at 2:08 PM on April 13, 2010

Did you look up the English through pictures series that JJ86 mentioned? Seems to be what you're looking for...
posted by mdn at 2:36 PM on April 13, 2010

Best answer: The wikipedia article on CETI doesn't go into much detail on my favourite one, here is the Dumas message - a 23 page book to do what you ask.

(It's pixelated because it is designed to be sent as a stream of binary.)
posted by -harlequin- at 8:27 PM on April 13, 2010

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