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'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.
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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'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.
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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
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 Schultz
- 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.