Why do we have human language?

The question that fascinates us all, at least at some point in life, is how we learn our native language. Who came up with the first language? Is it possible to fail in learning your native language? 🤔 Well, first of all, I am going to shed some light into the uniqueness of human language.

Most of the animals have some sort of communication methods. Wasps emit pheromones when their hive is under attack to signal other wasps that they should start taking protective measures, bees dance to each other to communicate the location of flowers and wolves howl. So, communication is not exclusive to humans, but what seems to be rather exclusive to us is the ability to communicate about a variety of things that don’t need to even occur at the time of communication. Wasps cannot tell each other that the hive was under attack yesterday neither can wolves use howling to tell each other they want to eat ice cream. Animal signalling systems serve only a very specific purpose. Human language is open-ended. We can combine words to come up with sentences that have never been uttered before. There are exceptions in the animal kingdom of animals capable of learning human language as you will learn in this documentary about a chimpanzee who learns to sign. 🙊 🙉 🙊

How do we then learn this magnificent thing known as language? The answer is short: because of innateness. Our brains are simply tuned into using language. Cognitive scientists have successfully been able to identify two regions in the brain, that of Broca and that of Wernicke, that seem to only serve in language production and understanding respectively. Two questions still remain: where do new languages come from and how can the babies learn a language to begin with. 👶

I am going to discuss the later question first. Chomsky hypothesized that there is a specific region in the brain that is only active in kids and that gets deactivated before the adolescence. This region is called LAD (language acquisition device). Researchers have failed to find such a region in the brain, but the implications of Chomsky’s hypothesis are still perceivable; there is a cut-off age after which in will be impossible to learn fully a language if the native language hasn’t been learned before that age. The cut-off age can vary from 8-12 years old depending on the gender and personal development speed. ✂️

So there is an age before which a language has to be learned. But how does a baby make sense of what adults say without any prior knowledge of the language itself? This is called the logical problem of language acquisition. Chomsky has a solution for this problem, namely the universal grammar. Chomsky views that all the languages follow this universal grammar and only differ from each other by attributes. For example, in English, subject is marked by its position in the sentence while in Finnish its marked by nominative case, both languages still have subjects all the same. The difference is in the level of attributes. The universal grammar, according to Chomsky, makes the language acquisition possible, it provides the baby with enough information about language as a system to decipher what the adults are saying; there’s only a limited set of possibilities for the structure of a language. 😮

It is possible that the first homo sapiens just started to speak with each other automatically, just as we start to breathe when we are born. Nobody had to “invent” language. There are some cases even in recent days that suggest that this might have been the case. 🤓

New languages are born when people speaking different languages enter in contact with each other. They have to develop a way of communication that is just enough that they can, for example, do commerce with each other. These languages called pidgins are very limited in their nature and one can’t simply use them to talk about politics, for instance. When children are born into this kind of a language society and a pidgin becomes their native language, a creole is born. Creoles are new born language hybrids that have the full expressive power of any given language. And they are born just like that, when the children native in a pidgin start to communicate with each other. Another example of a new born language is the Nicaraguan sign language (see the video). 📹

In short, we learn to speak because our biology permits us to do so, it’s something natural to us and languages are shaped by the limitations of our cognition. A language cannot be more than what our brain can handle. However, if we have nobody to talk to, we will not learn any language at all. You should compare this to my older blog post about social development. ✍️

If all this gets your motor running, I recommend you to read a book called, Language: The basics. It’s a good one and very well written too!

Hope you enjoyed this post. ☺️

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