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How Do People Understand Spoken and Written Language?

Updated on July 30, 2016
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herrypaul has a bachelor's degree in English Literature, he likes analyzing economic, political, literature, and religion views.

What is language? Basic concepts.
What is language? Basic concepts. | Source

What is Language?

Language is one of our most complex systems of behavior. Additionally, the research tools and techniques best used to study particular language skills do not lend themselves readily to the full array of skills found in communicative interactions. e.g., methods that work well to investigate the comprehension of certain syntactic structures by mature adult listeners often do not work well or at all for the study of language understanding in young children or the process of speech production by either adults or children. The best models of human language capacity make use of converging evidence from adult comprehension and production and from child language acquisition.

Let we go back to the subtitle What is language?

A baby cries because s/he is wet. A bee performs its waggle dance to inform others in the hive where nectar can be found. A cat scratches the door of the cupboard where the cat food is kept when when she is hungry. A dog barks to be let out. A parakeet says, "pretty bird!" as he views himself in the mirror. A child says, "I hate bean curd, and won't eat it."

Which of these represent the use of language? certainly each example communicates a message to those who receive it. But most of us would agree that only the last example truly exemplifies the use of language. What most distinguishes human language from these other communicative acts? Human language is characterized by its hierarchical structure. By this we mean that the message is divisible into smaller units of analysis. The child's utterance is a sentence that contains smaller discrete elements such as words and sounds, and these can be recombined to make other utterances (e.g., "I won't eat bean curd. I hate it".). All human languages are characterized by such structural properties. Conversely, it is difficult to analyze the substructure of infant or animal cries. Although some substructure may appear to exist in the bee's dance and the bird's replication of human speech, such messages lack the infinite creativity of human language. Competence language users are able to produce and understand a virtually unlimited number of well-formed sentences in their language.

And all human languages express the full range of speakers' experiences, even imaginary ones. Such is not the case (as far as we can tell) with animal languages. The parakeet is not free to discuss the weather with you, nor can he even paraphrase his message and say, "I'm a pretty bird." or "you're not a bird." Although the bee is adept at directing its fellow bees to nectar, it is incapable of warning them that an irate homeowner is coming after them with a can of insecticide. It may or may not possess such knowledge, but it lacks a sufficiently rich system of symbols and rules for their combination to allow transmission of a large variety of concepts.

The structural properties of any language include rules for using it properly; thus language is a rule-governed system of behavior. There is no right or wrong way to bark or cry (though some versions may be more annoying than others). Conversely, the rules of English specify that the child in our example may not say, "Bean crud I like not, eat and it won't I." English, like other language, has conventions for knowing what words must be included and for ordering those words in sentences. These rules are quite arbitrary in nature; no real reason exists why English should require the particular grammatical conventions it does. e.g., English is considered to have a basic word order in which subjects precede verbs and objects follow verbs (what is typically called S-V-O word order), although not all English sentences conform to this ordering. Yet, the tendency to put subjects before verbs in English sentences is no more logical than an insistence that the verb should come first, followed by the subject, as happens to be the case in Arabic. Furthermore, the particular words used to describe entities, actions, and attributes in any language are also arbitrary. There is no good reason why a tree should be called free, and of course in languages are symbols that substitute one thing (in this case, the string of sounds in the word tree) for another (the concept of a tall plant with branches, bark, and leaves). Both the grammar and vocabulary of any language represent arbitrary con that users of a language agree to abide by. Languages do not vary infinitely; they appear to be constraints on the nature of possible.

Linguistics rules that reflect the nature of human cognition (Chomsky, 1981). Universal characteristics of human cognition and perception probably also underline the presence in all languages of syntactic categories such as noun and verb. Properties shared by all languages are called linguistic universals.

These characteristics of language give it many other properties not shared by animal communication or infant cries. When both speaker and hearer (or writer and reader) share the same rule system, message transmission can be not only creative but usually unambiguous, its meaning clear. What the child is telling his parents about bean curd is quite explicit; there is little doubt about his meaning. But a crying infant's parents will say, "I wonder what's wrong with the baby?" and try checking her diaper, burping her, or offering a bottle until they determine the meaning of her message, or at least until she stops crying. The same is true for the dog whose bark may not clearly inform its owner whether he needs to go out, he needs more water, or he sees squirrel in the backyard. Language also allows us to talk about absent, or displaced concepts. We can converse about the upcoming election without having the candidates present; we can discuss purchasing a new sofa without physically looking at one, in this regard, human language is quite different from animal communication systems, whose communicative behaviors require elicitation by environmental stimuli.

Language is a symbol system for the exchange of ideas, and there are 3 overlapping components:     comprehension,     interpretation, and     expression.
Language is a symbol system for the exchange of ideas, and there are 3 overlapping components: comprehension, interpretation, and expression. | Source

Does Language Be Species- Specific?

Bertrand Russell once remarked, "No matter how eloquently a dog may bark, he can not tell you that his parents are poor but honest." One of the properties attributed to language is that it is a uniquely human behavior. Virtually all human beings spontaneously acquire a language without overt instruction and relatively quickly during childhood, unless they possess handicapping conditions. Researchers have not yet isolated any natural form of animal communication that embodies all of the features of language we have discussed. They have probed the communicative systems of many animals, searching for the linguistic properties that define human language. Although bees, birds, whales, dolphins, and nonhuman primates are capable of fairly sophisticated message exchanges, their capacities fall short of those of young children.

There have been attempts to teach human language to animals, particularly primates. It is true that some of the signing apes (Rumbaugh, 1977) produce brief utterances that relate to their current intents, but it is the unbounded productivity of new and varying messages so character of human language activity that is largely missing from animal communication systems. Animal communication is typically context or stimulus dependent; vocalizations are likely to occur under narrowly specified conditions. We have much to learn from the study of animal languages and from attempts to teach human language to primates; currently, the most promising work is being conducted with bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees, which display extraordinary communicative talents (Savage-Rumbaugh & Lewin, 1994). Most researchers agree that nonhuman primates can learn to use and comprehend vocabulary. Yet, it is a matter of spirited debate whether any nonhuman primates has earned to manipulate.

Speech and language development.
Speech and language development. | Source

How to distinguish Between Language and Speech?

Although some authors say that language is sound or that the medium of language is sound (Bolinger & Sears, 1981), this is not necessarily true. Most of the world's languages are spoken or oral, and for most individuals speaking precedes and is of greater importance than reading or writing. Yet, some human languages are signed or gestural. These languages. of which American Sign Language (ASL) is one example, have the same basic linguistics features found in oral human languages. Thus, like spoken languages, they are rule-governed, arbitrary systems of communication with hierarchical substructuring that are of infinite creativity and spontaneously acquired by infants exposed to them.

Many discussions will require the extremely important distinction between language and speech. We will concern with how people decode the sounds of language; we will investigate how people respond to written language. In many cases, we will draw parallels between what we know about oral language comprehension and production and the processing of sign language.


Bolinger, D., & Sears, D. (1981). Aspects of language (3rd ed). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Chomsky, N. (1981). Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishers.

Rumbaugh, D. (ed). (1977). Language learning by a Chimpanzee, New York: Academic Press.

Savage-Rumbaugh, S., & Lewin, R. (1994). The Ape at The Brink of/ He Human Mind. New York: Wiley.


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