Is Human Language Nature or Nurture?
The Big Question: Is Language "Innate" or just "In your Mate"?
This is possibly one of the world's most mysterious questions. It is a question that we do not yet know the answer to and a mystery which all scientists aspire to unfold: why are humans the only species capable of language? It is to do with anatomy? The brain? Our genes? Or is it simply because we teach each other to make these sounds and to understand each of their meanings, enabling us to communicate on a more complex level?
THE FORBIDDEN EXPERIMENT
In order to find out the answer to this question - "Is language due to nature or nurture?" - scientists would need to put a baby in an isolated room without any human contact, allow it to grow up and see if it could talk or not. This is, of course, unthinkably cruel and immoral, and so has become known to scientists as "The Forbidden Experiment", hence we are unable to truly discover the answer to this intriguing question. There are, however, many theories which have been put forward by linguists, scientists and psychologists arguing both sides of the controversy.
Noam Chomsky was an American linguist, philosopher and cognitive scientist whose theory stated that language is innate to humans. He claimed that, from a very early age, humans are not only able to make sounds - which admittedly every animal can do - but also apply meaning to them, which is a highly complex and intelligent process. Chomsky says that humans are 'programmed' to talk. But if this is so, why, then, are chimps - the human's closest descendant - unable to speak? Their brains are incredibly large for an animal, yet they still cannot talk. Scientists experimented with a chimp by raising it as a child and attempting to teach it to talk in the same way we do to children, but the experiment failed, proving not even chimps can speak the way humans do. So let's discuss a few areas that might explain why.
Some say that language is simply to do with anatomy; that is, our bodies being slightly more developed than other animals. The Larynx (voice box) in humans is positioned quite low down in the throat and is therefore longer, so when we speak or sing it rises and falls more dramatically, enabling us to make the complex sounds that other animals cannot. But tests have shown that when a dog barks, a sheep baas or a cow moos, their larynges - although shorter and higher up in the throat - also have the ability to move quite deeply down into the throat when vocalising. So, in theory, other animals should be able to talk were it down to anatomy. Therefore this cannot be the answer as to why only humans talk.
When someone has a stroke - a rapid loss of brain function due to a disturbance in the blood supply to the brain - people can sometimes lose their ability to speak. This provides evidence that there are sections in the brain dedicated to language. Scientists have indeed established that the human brain does have different compartments which enable speech; the left side of the brain is for language; the back of the brain for understanding speech; the front of the brain for speaking and word retrieval. These all then split into smaller sections, such as the "anterior superior temporal sulcus", which is the section of the brain which enables us to understand the meaning of words. This suggests that language is innate in humans.
Experiments have shown that even a one day old baby can register speech in its brain, even be if it only registers its mother's voice at this stage (as the mother is the most frequent voice heard from inside the womb). Surely this shows that before we are even born, we have something inside that compels us to speak and use language.
Gene FoxP2, descovered some years ago, was found to control speech and around the mouth area on the face. It has also been noted that some people who have speech disorders may have a faulty gene, pointing to chromosome 7 on Gene FoxP2. Studies showed that all vertebrates also have a version of this gene, but two tiny changes in the human form make the difference between making noises and producing speech.
"Why are our languages structured? Why don't we just make noises like other animals do? They seem to manage just fine..."
We have modified our language to suit our brains. Our brains are far too developed and far too intelligent to just use "Oo oo" for "Can I have a drink, please?" and "Ahh ee!" for "Stop that!" We have combined our abilities as humans - our advanced larynx, our intelligence - to structure sounds so that we can all understand each other fully. Tests show that humans and our brains can only remember things if there is some connection between the words; our brains remember things with patterns. For example, English speakers recognise that a word beginning with "Tri-" is going to have something to do with "three..." and consequently we can almost guess the meaning.
One study involved the invention of a language which used completely random words with no relation to one another. The people conducting the test acted as teachers, trying to teach volunteers this language. The students failed to learn the words correctly, but instead, without realising, altered what they thought the words were to fit more suitable patterns in relation to the other words. For example, Raspberry might origionally have been "Ganlerus" in this made-up language, and Blueberry might have been "Hicker", but the people remembered them as "Ganlerus" and "Hickerus", the "-us" representing "-berry", an easy-to-remember pattern.
"But parrots can talk..."
Parrots are merely mimicking noises. You say "Pretty Polly" they say "Pretty Polly". I admit, I've never had a parrot or trained one to talk, but I'm doubtful that you could go up to a parrot and start an indepth conversation about how to go about world peace, or that when you were having a laugh with your mates and trying to teach it a swear word, it would say, "I beg your pardon?! How rude!", because it doesn't understand the language, it just copies it.
The other side of the argument is that humans can only talk because we teach one another to. Our parents teach us that the sounds "h" + "i" make "hi", which means "hello". It's difficult to argue, however, that we teach one another the meanings of these words as apposed to instincively know, because in order to describe to your child what "hello" means, you'd need a whole lot of other words to do so. Meanings seem to be something we just pick up as we grow.
Feral children are a fine example that language could be a factor of nurture. These are children who have been raised by animals, never having had human contact. One girl was descovered to have been brought up by a pack of dogs; she ran around on all fours and barked to communicate. The fact that she ran around on all fours is proof that humans just copy what others do in their environment - we know that it is natural for a human to walk on two feet, but for her, all fours was normal. She did, however, speak some human-like words, but it was later descovered that very early on in her life she'd had human contact.
"Animals CAN talk...we just can't understand them and they can't understand us."
If that were true, human-animal interactions would be very much like a Brit asking for an ice-cream on holiday; the Brit asks for an ice-cream, the French man doesn't understand, the Brit repeats it louder, the Frenchman still doesn't understand, the Brit shouts "I want an ice-cream!", miming an ice-cream, the Frenchman says "ah!" followed by something in French which the Brit doesn't understand, so the Frenchman says it louder...you get the picture. But this doesn't happen with animals. We talk to them but they don't respond. They don't try to respond. They don't sit there thinking, "Honestly, what IS the human going on about now?!" Their brains aren't advanced enough to have these thoughts, just as their brains aren't advanced enough for speech, like ours are. They live like...well, animals! They communicate their basic needs through either body language (ie. nudging, biting etc) or basic sounds (ie. a bark to attract attention or a growel to ward off an intruder).
© 2009 by Daniella Wood. All rights reserved. Copying without permission is illegal and will be prosecuted.