Logos Multilingual Portal

4 - Affectivity and Learning

  Learning in general, and learning a foreign language in particular, is tied to the affective context in which it occurs. A child learns his mother's language or the language of the people closest, by associating the necessity to satisfy primary needs with certain sounds, and the concrete satisfaction of these needs by using the corresponding sounds. Learning the so-called "mother tongue" (or mother tongues in the case of bilingual families) occurs through unconscious associations and is detached from any rational control. Given that the needs of an infant are, for the most part, tied to the satisfaction of physiological needs and that the world is explored "by mouth", the first words learnt are usually associated with the mother and with the satisfaction of the following needs: din dins, mummy, milky, dummy, pooh-poohs.

Bruno Bettelheim

Fran├žois Truffaut
  This does not mean that until he can produce a sound that is functional in a relationship of emotional significance with an object or with a situation, that a child is not able to think of that same object or situation. "Thought has a wider extension than verbal language and can be interpreted from a functional point of view as the coordination of actions with the anticipated possible achievement of the final result in mind." 1.

Admittedly, in other words, there is a sub-verbal thought, which precedes verbal language and is also much more elaborate: both for adults and children, the verbal expression of a thought is always an attempt to synthesize, which necessarily leaves remnants of things unsaid.

  Specific studies on autistic children, who were therefore isolated from the rest of the world because they hadn't developed their communicative function, have shown the connection between the absence (physical or psychological) of a permanent figure in charge of their care in those first vital months and the developing of autism. The ability to communicate develops primarily, within what we will call, out of convenience, the mother-child relationship, although it is not necessary for the mother to actually take part, surrogate figures can substitute her. 2.

1 Massucco Costa e Fonzi, pp. 13.
2 Bettelheim 1950, 1967.

It is increasingly feasible that autism is caused by various problems. There is evidence, for example, that there might be a genetic influence. There is also evidence that there might be a virus behind the origins of autism. It is also more likely to produce an autistic child if the future mother were exposed to rubella (commonly known as German measles) during the first three months of pregnancy. Pollution and the Cytomegalavirus could also cause autism. See Edeson, S.M. at http://www.autism.org

  As the interests of the child evolve and are not just limited to the introduction/expulsion of food/feces, its ability to communicate and think also evolves. Words can be learnt in playful situations or in any socializing context, in either case the stimuli coming from the outside world are of fundamental importance in order to bring about the affective (emotional) ' situation, to which a particular sound is related, in a first and approximate correspondence between sound-meaning and significant-signified..

  At this point the infant tries to reproduce the sound to which he wants to connect to, with his body (phonation organ), and when he is successful, he realizes that the emission of that particular sound produces foreseeable consequences in the outer world: he is laying the foundations for effective verbal communication..

  In this kind of situation, linguistic learning is "spontaneous", not voluntary or through a rational decision. These facts lead us to the first two conclusions:

  learning the mother tongue (or the mother tongues) is an unconscious procedure and there is no rational control;

  what is learnt is tied to an affective (emotional) relationship of significance between the child and the person or object or action intended by the use of that particular word or locution.

  In the following phases of growth and development of the child, when the ability to think about abstract concepts develops, these same concepts are acquired in a similar way, given that the external environment is well-supplied in intellectual and affective stimuli. Without these stimuli and figures to imitate or with whom the child can establish a relationship, the linguistic ability does not develop at all. It demonstrated by a real fact that occurred in 1793 and described by Truffaut in the film Savage boy 3.

  This does not mean, as we have already said, that a person who is unable to speak is also impaired in his ability to elaborate mentally. "The capacity to elaborate ideas mentally, which a child is unable to express verbally, but which he condenses in evaluations and imaginative and dynamic schemes recognizable in the future evidence of adults, is demonstrated by a collection of hundreds of protocols, where adults evoke infantile syncretic experiences related to good and bad" 4.

3 Truffaut 1969.
4 Massucco Costa e Fonzi, pp. 32.

  The memories of an adult, of his life as a child, are extremely personal and vary from person to person, but in general the further back one goes, the fewer the memories. The adult at this point, has acquired a mother tongue (more rarely two), and he both speaks and writes it automatically. In the same way he uses other forms of automatism, such as walking, eating pedaling, or driving. The fact that he does these activities does not imply that the subject must recognize inside himself the actual moment or situation in which he learnt how to do these things; on the contrary, in many cases these memories have been cancelled by time, and the action is completed without knowing when, where, with whom or how the action was learnt.

  This "forgetfulness" has to do with the way the brain works orientated on a principle of economy: think how tiring it would be if we had to concentrate every time we ate something, on all the single movements necessary to actually chew and then send it down. If whilst pedaling we ask ourselves what we are precisely doing to keep in balance, and we try to be conscious of each action, the breakage of this automatism caused by its unveiling could have damaging effects, determining the loss of balance which had been reached "automatically"

  Similarly, when we speak or write, we do it automatically, spontaneously, until the moment in which a specific experience forces us to ask ourselves what we know, how we know it and if it is correct for us to speak and write in a certain way.

  The influence between verbal language and sub-verbal language is not univocal but reciprocal. "Verbal language, interprets and integrates sub-verbal language, and at the same time uses a more mediated and articulated interpretation of reality and a more precise and powerful regulation of knowledge and of voluntary actions. 5. In other words, verbal language serves as a logic structure within which thoughts, images, and non-verbal emotions can be organized.

  Given that this degree of evolution in a child is usually reached within the first two years, and that memories of when we were two are very scarce o even nonexistent, it is fairly obvious that an adult who does not work in an environment where the use of a language is necessary (and therefore metalinguistic thought) is and will be totally unaware of all these mechanisms.

  As children grow up, they use sub-verbal language less and less and they tend to count more on words. To prove the intelligibility of sub-verbal language there are some families where the elder brother is able to translate the noises and movements of the younger brother: "In the group relationship between children belonging to the same family, the rapid interpretation and translation into intelligible verbal terms, of a sub-verbal way of communicating of younger brothers, and of their often difficult to understand way of verbalizing, shows the slowness and the gradualness of the transition from one type of communication to another[_] infantile jargon [_] can be translated" 6

5 Massucco Costa e Fonzi, pp. 36.
6 Massucco Costa e Fonzi, pp. 39.

  This last sentence introduces the topic of interpretation and translation and will acquire different meanings in the following parts of the course. For now we have dealt with the unconscious roots of the awareness of the mother tongue. In the following lessons we will deal with the question of linguistic self-awareness and of the languages learnt.


Bettelheim, B. Love Is Not Enough; The Treatment Of Emotionally Disturbed Children. Glencoe, Ill., Free Press, 1950.

Bettelheim, B. The Empty Fortress; Infantile Autism And The Birth Of The Self. New York, Free Press, 1967.

Massucco Costa, A. - Fonzi, A. Psicologia del linguaggio,
Torino, Boringhieri, 1967.

Truffaut, F. Savage Boy [L'enfant sauvage], France, 1969.