Human Language: Nature Vs. Nurture


Language is a necessity to all humankind. We use language to interview for jobs, write resumes, gossip about our neighbor, discipline your children. Everyday we use language countless times. So I must ask, where does language come from?

Many people debate over how language is developed. Is it formed naturally or created through nurture. I do believe most people would agree that it takes both nature and nurture for humans to communicate. Still, if we took a colony of infants, spoke no words to them, and let them grow up on their own only providing their basic needs, would they create their own language, would they communicate through body language or gestures, or would they not communicate at all?

Clearly language in humans is not all nature for there are a wide variety of languages, gestures, and other forms of communication. But there are some things that are universal. For instance, most languages have some sort of syntax that must be followed. To truly understand whether language is mostly nature or nurture, we should learn about existing theories, understand language word placement, and look at how others in the animal kingdom communicate.


Is All Communication Language?

Some people will argue that the one thing that separates us from other animals is the fact that we humans have language. Many people will argue against this. They will show how certain animals do in fact speak to one another. Although one has to ask, how much is their language truly considered language? I personally believe that humans are the only ones to truly use language. Although animals do have basic ability to communicate, we must recognize the fact that our ability to communicate goes far beyond mere physical capabilities. We can have complex conversations with an infinite amount of symbols and sentences to express what we need. There are also specific rules regarding our language that shows how complex our speaking truly is.

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner believed people used language to influence those around them, as a memory tool, to express idea, and to discuss language.
Howard Gardner believed people used language to influence those around them, as a memory tool, to express idea, and to discuss language. | Source

Howard Gardner's Theory

Howard Gardner is one man who shows in his text, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences : that there are four basic principles that is seen in human language.

1. People use language to influence those around them, such as when a child asks someone to hand them a toy, or your boss asks you to finish the report by the end of the day. We use our language to induce action within others.

2. Language is used as a memory tool. We have the cognitive ability to use our language to remember things such as the alphabet. We are able to put things into alphabetical place because we all have learned the ABC's through song. Many people also have memorized the names of the month in this same way. We unlike animals use our language to help us with memory.

3. We also use language to express ideas to one another. We unlike any other animal are able to sit down and have complex conversations religion or politics and be able to back up our ideas using language. Or able to teach children about manners by using our words, not just by demonstration. Although too often we use the first part, and neglect the second half unlike the rest of the animal species.

4. We use language to discuss language. For instance, here, but even more commonly when a child asks, "Mama, what does the word hope mean?" Some refer to this type of speech as metalinguistic analysis.

Although after reading these four summations of language, it truly feels like it has been simplified too easily. Our uses of language seem more complex, more specific, well just plain more than the brief summary of four uses. He like the famous Noam Chomsky believe that language has had some sort of linguistic evolution. The first humans had very limited capabilities of speech, but over time we as humans have learned how to speak, communicate to the level of thinking we have reached today.

Linguistic Evolution?

Although many people question the linguistic evolution idea and believe that we have always had the capability. We from the beginning were hard-wired to be able to think complex thoughts, speak intricate infinite number of sentences, etc. This theory is a belief that our brains are wired very differently than animals. Although it is clear from either standpoint that our brains are in fact wired differently, the difference stands in how much is a genetic predisposition to speaking and physical capability of speech. Would other animals speak as we do if only they had the physical capability of it? Why are there so many different languages? Do the different sounds in each language used, because of their need in their society?

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is like the Michael Jordan of linguistics.
Noam Chomsky is like the Michael Jordan of linguistics. | Source

Noam Chomsky's Thoery, and The Other School of Thought

When I said the "famous Noam Chomsky" you may have been like, uh, famous? Truth is, in the linguistic world he is FAMOUS. He's like the Einstein of physics, or the Michael Jordan of Basketball. If you know linguistics, you know who he is. Although there are some people who disagree with his ideology, many don't.

Chomsky was one of the first to believe that human brains are prewired to language. That even as infants have a prewired idea of how language works. This idea does go back to Darwinism. Noam Chomsky actually calls this innate ability as the "language faculty."

Those who are not quite in the Chomsky camp so to speak, believe that infants have a set cognitive ability. As they grow and develop they learn and are shaped by their environment. Those around them speak and they learn the rules and meaning of those sounds and symbols that make up speech. In the beginning example of the group of infants, they believe those children would not grow to have a language where they can communicate with one another. Chomsky's belief is that they would in fact develop a language that all the babies could understand.

Who Is We?

We is often understood depending on who the speaker is and who is near.
We is often understood depending on who the speaker is and who is near. | Source

Ambiguities In Language

Chomsky also believes that all people understand the same language ambiguities the same way. That we all understand things naturally the same way. For instance, if I were to say I have a black car. Regardless of what language I was speaking in, the listener would know I was referring to the fact that the outside of my car is black, not the interior. Even if the inside of my car is grey, the outside is black, I would still say "I have a black car."

Another thing that is common in all languages is how we all will have words that mean, "good," "wide," and "deep." Some languages will have words that mean the opposite, such as, "bad," "narrow," and shallow," whereas others will only use the negative form of these words, "not good," "not wide," and not deep." Although none of them will use the opposite of the negation word, for instance in none of the languages is it proper to say, "not bad," and have it translate perfectly to good. Even when Americans say, that's not bad, it usually means, it's not good either. Not narrow also would not mean wide and so on.

Importance of Syntax on Communication

They have done extensive studies on the fact that there are certain parts in our brain that cause us to naturally pick up speech. For instance, we all know without being taught where adjectives go, where the noun goes, where the verb goes. For instance, if I were to say, "The big cat eats meat." It makes sense, whereas, "meat cat eats big the," does not. In most languages there is a natural flow of the words that allow it to make sense. Looking at English, there is a part in our brain that even orders different kind of adjectives in a certain order for instance we all say, "the big red balloon." No one says, "the red big balloon." There is something in our brain that cause us to order the words in certain way.

Some people believe that since few people will make these simple mistakes when speaking that there is a generative grammar, which is a part in your brain that is automatically predisposed to know certain grammar rules and innately follow them. This theory is very extensive and I could even build grammatical trees to help explain this, but as this is quite extensive I am just giving a few short examples such as "the big red balloon." Also everyone knows that the article (a, the) goes before the noun not after. The most basic sentence in English would be subject, verb, direct object. By switching the subject and the direct object you are changing the meaning of the sentence. For example, "The dog at the hot dog," or the hot dog ate the dog." Two very different sentences with two very different meanings, but the same words!

Alice Could Talk to Animals

If we better understood how animals communicate, would we be able to talk to them?
If we better understood how animals communicate, would we be able to talk to them? | Source

Language in Animals

Another aspect we need to think about is how we are different from animals. Is the reason your dog cannot talk, because they do not have the vocal tract that we have, or is it solely the cognitive ability. Well, if you look at a parrot, they have the capability to talk, but not the intellect. They are able to acquire the ability to speak like humans, but they are unable to switch the word Susie from Polly. For instance, if you taught your parrot to say, "Polly wants a cracker," it will not know to say "Susie," just because it's name is Susie. Or to say seeds instead of cracker. It will only know to say, "Polly wants a cracker."

Even looking at the more evolved animals such as monkeys. Monkeys are able to communicate, but not completely like we can. In fact, I feel this shows how much different we are from the animal community. They can say many things through sign language, but they have intellectual limitations. Like they are unable to fully understand our syntax, they are able to make some new sentences, but not with the same complexity that humans can.

There is so much that goes into language acquisition. As you can see it takes both nature and nurture for a human to be able to use language in the way that we do. There will always be a debate on which is more important in this acquisition of language, but here is a short overview of what is needed for us to speak like we do.

Nature Versus Nurture: The Human Brain

© 2010 Angela Michelle

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Comments 50 comments

nurseha 4 months ago

thanks so much.

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angela_michelle 3 years ago from United States Author

Glad to help.

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babybree78 3 years ago

Love this article, I used this along with others for my 2000 word research paper! Great article.

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angela_michelle 4 years ago from United States Author

I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

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jessica-bury 4 years ago

EXCELLENT HUB! Well researched and very insightful. I absolutely love this topic and I loved reading your hub.

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angela_michelle 5 years ago from United States Author

Hey, thanks so much I appreciaste the vote up!!

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celeBritys4africA 5 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

You made a perfect hub, language and communication is not the same thing. One vote up.

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angela_michelle 5 years ago from United States Author

Thanks fucsia. :)

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fucsia 5 years ago

Very interesting argument and very well explained. Thanks for shaing this informative page

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angela_michelle 5 years ago from United States Author

Thanks for the great compliment. :) I appreciate it!

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crystolite 5 years ago from Houston TX

Great info which i enjoyed a lot that is also well shared.

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angela_michelle 5 years ago from United States Author

Thanks so much, I appreciate it.

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Cathyrin 5 years ago from Philippines

Very informative hub you have here. Voted this up and useful. :)

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Thanks so much!!!

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htodd 6 years ago from United States

Great lens Thanks for sharing angela_michelle

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htodd 6 years ago from United States

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Maximum A I definitely have a lot to learn on this topic, but I agree with you that we should use our unique abilities for the betterment of society. I think often we humans forget that. :)

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Maximum A 6 years ago

Your hub is very interesting and educational! It's true that the nature vs nurture issue on language is immortal (most likely because, as you said, it takes both nature and nurture). Aside from the fact that Chomsky advocates that we humans have LAD (Language Acquisition Device), he is also more of what you'd call a formalist. In Systemic Functional Linguistics, he focuses more on syntax. And the thing you wrote about how different we are from animals, it really means that we humans should appreciate this unique ability to communicate and use it to further the betterment of our society.

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Thank you so much for the great compliment!!!

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epigramman 6 years ago

....well you certainly speak an essential language to your fellow readers which makes this one hubtastic learning experience ......

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Thank you yellowstar for such a great compliment. I appreciate it so much!

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yellowstar2000 6 years ago from WestCoast Florida

excellent hub,looks like a lot of thought and research went into making it such an interesting topic. nicely done!

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Wow, Faybe, that is really interesting!! I know that twins often make up their own language that only the two of them can understand. Maybe it's a little of that that is preserved in special circumstances.

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Mobywho, I actually think I have to get that book!! If you don't notice though,all languages even romance languages have their own set of rules on object, subject, verb placement!!

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Faybe Bay 6 years ago from Florida

Okay, here goes. I remember thinking that I was saying words when I was six months old, I remember what I was saying. I didn't know I was six months old, that knowledge came later, as year after year I described events to relatives that none of them remembered. Eventually my grandmother recalled the episode, when in my twenties I described it to her in such detail that she remembered.

Flash forward to January 1995. My son and a friend's grandson were born within 3 days of each other. At less than two weeks of age these babies were placed face to face as I spoke with my friend and we sat the boys on the counter, supporting them with our bodies and arms. The boys reached for each other and immediately started babbling as if they were carrying on a conversation. We were in awe and had trouble separating them as they did not want to let go. This was certainly at an age when children don't yet coo to their parents. Language has more to do with us learning to conform to the language of our parents than it does to communication. It was obvious to all witnesses (there were five of us) that babies have their own language and that they know what they are saying. We as adults are too far gone to understand it, it was "taught" out of us.

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MobyWho 6 years ago from Burlington VT

"Born That Way..." by William Wright, is a bit off-topic re your article, but goes into the nature vs nurture subject, especially as it relates to twins. Anyone interested in the subject would do well to read his ideas. Incidently, the arrangement of words in a sentence works well in English, but how did we manage to twist the Latin, or other romance languages around? "Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est." Just a thought.

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Thanks for writing coversation tips!!! I appreciate your comment. I do have to argue against number two, because this actually means they use it to help them store memory. They may remember things, but they don't use their language to help them store that memory. It's slightly different in meaning.

I find your response 3 very interesting, because they have found that some chimps will teach others sign language, but you will find that they can't develop new signs on their own, but yes this one is a very valid argument, and probably the most influential one that is out there.

I definitely find it a very interesting debate. I will always feel that humans are superior intellectually. Not saying animals do not have great communication, but there has never quite hit the level of language. We did a survey in our linguistics class about it, and at the beginning of the year I was with the animal language debate, and the class was split half and half. At the end of the linguistics class, it was interesting, several people changed their answers, but the debate was still close to half and half.

Your arguments about telepathy in animals are definitely interesting. I'm still not ready to switch camps again. I have not yet heard quite the factual information for me to believe that animals communication quite compares to our language.

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Thanks Tonymac, I realize how much I need to add to this hub. This is such an in depth topic that it would take nearly twenty hubs to only cover the basics. I found it so interesting. I was so excited that people found it so interesting and that it became a featured hub. I thought about becoming a linguist after I first learned the basics of this. The real language topic I should cover next aside from animal communication is sexual difference in language. It's such a humorous very true to life topic.

Conversation Tips 6 years ago

Re your four criteria, 1) People use language to influence those around them: roars kind of do the same thing?

2. Language is used as a memory tool: some dogs at least know what 'walkies' means

3We also use language to express ideas to one another: Watch Matthew Broderick in Project X: chimps can bve taught sign language and then they will teach it to other chimps

point we have no real proof that we're uique because we can't actually understand the communications of other species, so we have no idea what they are communicating. It could be meta as heck for all we know.

Until recently, homo sapiens has basked in the idea that we are unique: the only sentient life form on the only life-bearing planet in whole of the universe. And all life on earth breathes oxygen and dies in boiling water 100 degrees celsius. We're the only species that can plan, use tools and understand death.

And suddenly it seems all these ideas are wrong. Bacteria found in asteroids Mars; lots of M class planets, birds that plan and use tools, chimps going into mourning. Homo Neanderthalis used tools and communicated, and vied with us before dying out.

Yes, the brain has a highly developed language centre: communication is homo sapiens' strength, but it didn't pop up out of nowhere, and I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that some animals are actually a little telepathic, and so don't need language like we do

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tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa

I enjoyed this read, thank you. Language and how it came to be is so interesting. I think the distinction between language and communication is an important one. Stephen Pinker's concept of language framework being hardwired into our brains and the form that language takes being culturally determined is also interesting.

Congrats on this being a featured Hub!

Love and peace


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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Sequoia hopefully when I finish my animal hub you will find it interesting. It will cover a lot of things. I realize how much I am missing from this article, by everyone's comments. I am so happy about that. I just wish I wasn't so busy and could spend more time with my research. I researched this along time ago, but the info is not as readily as available as it used to be.

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

I am actually very familiar with Piaget, and I have heard of Vygotsky. Ironically, I have definitely heard of the Zone of Proximal Development. I should probably add that into there. I wrote most of it from my memory, and I really should have spent more time doing research for this article. I think I may just have to update it soon. :)

Sequoia Elisabeth 6 years ago

Good article, and I have to agree with I scribble. Animals are far more intelligent than we give them credit for and I will add that Darwin is far less intelligent than he is given credit for. I get your point that communication is diff. than language, so how does one go about knowing that dolphins do not have philosophical discussions, or parrots or chimpanzees? Their level of language may not be as sophisticated as ours, but that does not mean that they do not communicate on highly complex levels.

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UnlimitedDY 6 years ago from England

Hello there. I notice your reference to Noam Chomsky and his nod to innate development of language- very interesting. I study Psychology and English Linguistics and would like to know if you have ever come across Lev Semenovich Vygotsky and/or Jean Piaget. As a European, we rely very heavily on their theories for learning, so I would just like to know if you find them interesting. Personally, I believe that what Vygotsky has to say on a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the most influential part on language aqcuisition. Regards, UnlimitedDY

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

sbyholm... lol, very good analogy!!! haha! Yes, exactly, that's what differetiates between communication and language. I do think I am going to do a hub solely on animal communication it is so fascinating!!! Bees were fascinating to me when I learned how they communicate, because I never thought about how an insect would communicate. They actually will do a dance and that tells the other bees where they should go pollenate flowers. (see there I go being self centered) to a bee, they are not pollenating, they are eating... or whatever they do. :)

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Dallas, you are very right on that one. Too bad we were not better listeners. I think that's one part of language that humans have not yet mastered. I do try to be a better listener, but sadly I find those I love the most I'm the worst listener too.

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sbyholm 6 years ago from Finland

Interesting topic. I suppose animals communicate about what happens now. Danger, where is food, lets be friends or "get our of my way or I'll tear you to pieces".

Humans can talk/write about what some imaginary caveman did thousands of years ago and make up stories of how he hunted mammoths on the plains and ate raw meat.

I'm not so sure a dog can tell another dog that he pooped on that yellow car on the other side of town last week that day when it was raining :)

There probably a lot more we could learn about how animals communicate though...

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dallas93444 6 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

Communication is key. Great hub. The "non-communication," of greetings are a communication: I'm OK, You're OK." Most of us really do not want to know REALLY how they are... We are self-centered and thinking about what we want to communicate... Most of us do not listen "actively."

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Very true Mentalist.

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Fred Allen, that's very true. Kind of like the word "yes," can mean one hundred different things dependent on your tone or the context.

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Dave Matthews, I am not sure I am following you with the murder comment. But I think you are right. That verse is very interesting as far as how efficiently the animals work together.

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Mentalist acer 6 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

Humans are are also visualy hardwired to associate what they see into vocalization to accompany the interpretation of what is seen...

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fred allen 6 years ago from Myrtle Beach SC

Fascinating subject matter. To me, this proves that we have been set apart from all creation. There are so many complexities in the ways we communicate with each other it bears the signature of God. From the words we use to the way we use them and even the tones and inflections affect what is being communicated. Not bad can mean very good if spoken with the right tone and facial expression. Only man among all creation has such incredible capabilities. As for your hub...Not bad! (very good)!!

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Dave Mathews 6 years ago from NORTH YORK,ONTARIO,CANADA

Angela_michelle; I believe that if you took a colony of human infant babies,and never spoke a word to them ever, they would still form some means of communication so that they could understand each other. Take a look at KJV Proverbs: 30:25-31 you will find something fascinating there. It actually made me stop and think that maybe I might have committed (murder)a strange thought I know.

Brother Dave.

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Thank you so much Minnetonka Twin. I absolutely love this topic and I had so much more to write on this topic, but I had to be limited at what I told, as to not make it too boring. I think I will write more on this topic, but take from different topics. I think the next one will probably be animal communication.

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Sue Adams, I actually am very interested in the whole animal being able to communicate. From a linguistics standpoint, it's hard to point to them actually having language. We know they communicate, but as per the definition of language set up by linguistics, its not actually language.

I think one of my favorite studies was about bees. Bees actually do a dance that tells the other bees where the flowers are. But they do have a defect in their communication. They can tell the other bees east, west, north, south, and all other directions in between, but they can't tell the other bees if it is high off the ground, low to the ground, or up in a hanging basket. They discovered this by showing bees a sweet substance high off the ground. The bee immediately went back to its hive and told the other bees where to go. They went, but could not find the source the original bee told the others about. So there are limitations in their communication. That is one of many reasons why linguists will say they communicate but not have language.

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angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

I scribble, I may just have to link to your parrot hub too. I know there are many people who disagree with the belief that animals have limited intellectual capacity. I almost went into that as well, but decided that would be a good hub in and of itself. Plus this hub was getting to nearly 2000 words. :)

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Minnetonka Twin 6 years ago from Minnesota

What an incredibly interesting hub. You did some really incredible writing and researching on this topic. I really appreciate this. Rated up and useful!

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Sue Adams 6 years ago from Andalusia

Hi Angela-Michelle, I really enjoyed reading your very interesting "Human Language: Nature Vs. Nurture Hub and I agree with Chomsky that language is in our genes.

But I also agree with i scribble. Just because we cannot understand animal language doesn't mean that some animals don't use sophisticated languages. What about bird talk and how large colonies of birds can organise themselves to take annual trips halfway across the world? What about dolphins? Even ants and bees must have some form of highly evolved communication system to achieve what they are capable of doing.

On another note: I hate it when you ask someone:"How are you?" and they respond: "Oh, not too bad...!" To me that means (like you said) "..not too good either", but it's just not quite negative enough to spark off the question "What's wrong with you then?" and, to me it certifies that the person who says they are "not too bad" is used to being a miserable sod so I tend to avoid those people.

PS: thanks for linking to my "I'm so happy - linguistic discoveries hub".

Keep up the good work! :)

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i scribble 6 years ago

This is an interesting topic. I have to disagree, though, on the intellectual limitations of parrots. They can be taught to converse meaningfully, albeit on a preschool level. Check out my hub: Parrots May Be As Intelligent as Chimps, especially the video. I think many animals are underrated intellectually simply because they don't speak our language and other human-centric reasons. Thanks for linking to my talking elephant video.

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    • Exploring the Mind,, Duke University: Durnham, North Carolina, 1997.
    • Syntax - Wikipedia,, 2010.

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