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Human Language: Nature Vs. Nurture

Updated on May 20, 2017
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Angela is an avid reader who studied English Literature in college. She has a passion for the written word and loves literature.

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Language is a necessity to all humankind. We use language tointerview for jobs, write resumes, gossip about our neighbor, discipline your children. Everyday we use language countless times.

Many people debate over how language is developed. Is it formed naturally or created through nurture? If a colony of infants were formed, no words were spoke to them, and only their basic needs were cared for for them, 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, one must learn about existing theories, understand language word placement, and look at how others in the animal kingdom communicate.

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Is All Communication Language?

Most would agree that the one thing that separates us from other animals is the fact that humans have language. Those who disagree point out that animals do communicate to one another. Although one must ask, how much is their language truly considered language? Although animals do have the basic ability to communicate, humans are capable of communicating beyond through logic and complex thought. Humans have complex conversations with an infinite amount of symbols and sentences to express their needs. There are also specific rules regarding human language that proves how complex 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 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 a boss asks his employee to finish a report by the end of the day. Language is used to induce action within others.
  2. Language is used as a memory tool. Humans have the cognitive ability to use language to remember things such as the alphabet, Then they use that knowledge to put things into alphabetical order. Many people also have memorized the names of the month in this same way. Language in humans is stored to be used for memory purposes.
  3. Language expresses ideas to one another. Unlike other animals, people are able to have complex conversations about religion or politics and be able to back up ideas using language, or be able to teach children about manners by using words not just by demonstration.
  4. Language can be used to discuss language. For instance, in this article, but even more commonly when a child asks, "Mama, what does the word hope mean?" This type of speech is metalinguistic analysis.

Gardner, like the famous linguist Noam Chomsky, believe that language has had some sort of linguistic evolution. They believe that the first humans had very limited capabilities of speech, but over time people have learned how to speak more complexly and communicate to the level of thinking we have reached today.

Linguistic Evolution?

Although many people question the linguistic evolution idea and believe that humans have always had the capability. Regardless, from the beginning, the human brain was hard-wired to be able to think complex thoughts, speak intricate infinite number of sentences, etc. This theory is a belief that human brains are wired very differently than animals. Although it is clear from either standpoint that a person's brain is wired differently, the difference stands in how much is a genetic predisposition to speaking and physical capability of speech. Would other animals speak as a person does if only they had the physical capability? Why are there so many different languages? Are the different sounds used, due to the need within that 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

Noam Chomsky in the linguistic world is like the Einstein of physics, or the Michael Jordan of Basketball. Chomsky was one of the first to believe that human brains are prewired for language. Even as infants, they have a pre-wired idea of how language works. This idea goes back to Darwinism. Noam Chomsky actually calls this innate ability as the "language faculty."

Those who do not agree with Chomsky 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 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 all understand things naturally the same way. For instance, if someone to say, "I have a black car," regardless of what language was being spoken, the listener would know that black referred to the outside of the car, nt the interior. Even if the inside was grey and the outside is black, one would still say "I have a black car."

Another thing that is common in all languages is how 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." None will use the opposite of the negation word. For instance, it is never proper to say, "not bad," and have it translate perfectly to good from one language to the next. 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 the brain that causes one to naturally pick up speech. For instance, everyone knows 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 the 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 the brain that causes only one order of the words to make sense.

Since few will make these simple mistakes when speaking, it is believed that there is a generative grammar, a part in the brain that is automatically predisposed to know certain grammar rules and innately follow them. 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 ate the hot dog," or "The hot dog ate the dog," are 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

How are we different from animals? Is the reason a dog cannot talk, because they do not have the vocal tract, or is it solely the cognitive ability? A parrot has 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 a parrot knew how 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 animals that are more similar to humans, such as monkeys. Monkeys are able to communicate, but not completely the same as a person. They can say many things through sign language, but they have intellectual limitations. Like they are unable to fully understand 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. It takes both nature and nurture for a human to be able to use language. There will always be a debate on which is more important in the acquisition of such a complex ability.

Nature Versus Nurture: The Human Brain

© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz

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      nurseha 8 months ago

      thanks so much.

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      Angela Michelle Schultz 4 years ago from United States

      Glad to help.

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      babybree78 4 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 Schultz 5 years ago from United States

      I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

    • jessica-bury profile image

      jessica-bury 5 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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

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

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      celeBritys4africA 6 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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      Thanks fucsia. :)

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      fucsia 6 years ago

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

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      Angela Michelle Schultz 6 years ago from United States

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

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      Emma 6 years ago from Houston TX

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

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      Angela Michelle Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      Thanks so much, I appreciate it.

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      Cathyrin 6 years ago from Philippines

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

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      Angela Michelle Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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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      Jee Ann G 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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

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

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      Candice Collins 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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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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      Faye Constantino 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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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.

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      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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      Tony McGregor 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

      Tony

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      Angela Michelle Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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. :)

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      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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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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      Dallas W Thompson 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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      Very true Mentalist.

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      Angela Michelle Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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 Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      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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      Linda Rogers 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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      Juliette Kando 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.

    Citations

    • Exploring the Mind, http://www.duke.edu/~pk10/language/psych.htm, Duke University: Durnham, North Carolina, 1997.
    • Syntax - Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syntax, 2010.

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