Are Humans Predisposed to Learn Language?

April 16, 2012 by totalityservices

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It is one of those things that we take for granted, we don’t stop to think twice about this impressive ability that humans have to acquire language so effortlessly. In the linguistic circles this is a popular topic however; there have been many studies and many linguists who tried to address this issue, the so-called innateness hypothesis.

Steven Pinker, in his book The language Instinct very aptly says that “you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision. That ability is language”. What Pinker essentially is pointing out is that humans, as opposed to animals, have language and can communicate about things that are happening now, or things that happen in the future. Humans can give detailed descriptions to the point where the listener can picture what the speaker is describing. But have we ever thought however how we acquire language?

As with many things there is no one single answer, but there has been evidence to support the idea that humans are somehow “programmed” to learn language. Firstly, there are features of language that only humans have and which prove that language is in fact species-specific. One such feature is that human language, as opposed to animal communication, is productive; people express themselves through language whereas animals can only communicate with each other on a more basic level about certain things, i.e. food or a threat.

Opinions on whether humans are born with some kind of innate equipment to learn language are divided. Empiricists support the idea that we learn from experience, that children learn language through imitation and through parents’ positive responses to a child’s attempt to talk or imitate their parents’ speech.

However, this is not the case as if we observe children with impairments, such as children with William’s Syndrome who have very low IQ and cannot cope with day-to-day activities, and yet have a language level which is astonishing. William’s Syndrome children usually have a very unique vocabulary, which cannot have been acquired through imitation or reinforcement. Pinker mentions that a William’s Syndrome child, when asked to name an animal, is likely to come up with ‘unicorn’, ‘sea lion’ or even ‘dragon’ (!).

If you think about how children only listen to grammatically correct utterances from their environment, if language acquisition was a matter of imitation then how can we explain utterances of young children like “I goed”, for example?

Looking back to the period of colonisation, where people from different cultures who spoke different languages found themselves in a situation where they had to communicate with each other without knowing each other’s language. With this language contact, fledgeling Pidgin languages emerged, with borrowings from the languages of the people that created them; but these languages were not fully grammatical or structured. This mere fact is amazing in itself, and can be proof that humans have an innate capability to learn language.

However, what is more interesting, and yet a stronger proof that language is innate, is when we look at the second generations of the Pidgin speakers. The children of these people, who learnt the Pidgin language as their mother tongue, were able to develop it and acquire a fully structured and grammatical language, the Creole language. This proves that individuals have some universal language-learning abilities and that language acquisition is triggered merely by exposing a child to a language environment.

There is of course the aspect of age which is related to the various phases of children’s development. There is a critical period in which a child must acquire language and this is claimed to be until the age of 12. Learning language after this period is very difficult.

If we take into consideration that children are “programmed” to learn language, then language should be a uniquely human capability, which it is. There have been several attempts to teach chimpanzees human language but with little success. One such example is that of a chimp called Washoe which was taught sign language. Her trainers thought that teaching chimpanzees human language was destined to fail because chimpanzees do not have the vocal equipment to be able to speak.

After approximately 4 years Washoe had a vocabulary of about 130 words and she could produce utterances similar to those produced by babies at the age of two. But her vocabulary and language skills did not improve further and even after many years of training her language abilities were a lot lower than those of a child with hearing impairment of the the same age.

The question with trying to teach animals human language is whether the animal is actually learning the language or whether they are responding to their trainer’s order in order to get a treat.

Moreover, from an empiricists’ point of view, animals do not have the intellect to learn language. On the other hand nativists would counter argue that animals just do not have the language ability that humans have – an ability which has not much to do with intelligence. Whichever is the case, it seems that whatever it is that humans have that makes them acquire language, whether intelligence or something else, animals just don’t have it.

As with all things, there is no black and white. Language acquisition has most definitely as much to do with innate factors as it has to do with environmental influences. There must be a reason why humans have language and other animals don’t; individuals must have a unique ability, which may well be innate, to acquire language once they are exposed to it, which animals don’t have. Or, as Lily Tomlin puts it, it may well be the case that “man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain”.

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