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. Every day 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 was formed, no words were spoken to them, and only their basic needs were cared for them, would they create their own language, would they communicate through body language or gestures, or would they not communicate at all?

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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.

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 with 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 shows in his text, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences: that there are four basic principles that are 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 among 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 common 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.

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 an 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 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 pre-wired 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.

Chomsky also believes that all people understand the same language ambiguities in 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, not 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.

They have done extensive studies on the fact that there are certain parts of 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 a 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 of 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!

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 its name is Susie. Or to say seeds instead of a 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.

  • 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.