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62 Language

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define language and demonstrate familiarity with the components of language
  • Understand the development of language
  • Explain the relationship between language and thinking

Language is a communication system that involves using words and systematic rules to organize those words to transmit information from one individual to another. While language is a form of communication, not all communication is language. Many species communicate with one another through their postures, movements, odours, or vocalizations. This communication is crucial for species that need to interact and develop social relationships with their conspecifics. However, many people have asserted that it is language that makes humans unique among all of the animal species (Corballis & Suddendorf, 2007; Tomasello & Rakoczy, 2003). This section will focus on what distinguishes language as a special form of communication, how the use of language develops, and how language affects the way we think.

Components of Language


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Language, be it spoken, signed, or written, has specific components: a lexicon and grammar. Lexicon refers to the words of a given language. Thus, lexicon is a language’s vocabulary. Grammar refers to the set of rules that are used to convey meaning through the use of the lexicon (Fernández & Cairns, 2011). For instance, English grammar dictates that most verbs receive an “-ed” at the end to indicate past tense.

Words are formed by combining the various phonemes that make up the language. A phoneme (e.g., the sounds “ah” vs. “eh”) is a basic sound unit of a given language, and different languages have different sets of phonemes. Phonemes are combined to form morphemes, which are the smallest units of language that convey some type of meaning (e.g., “I” is both a phoneme and a morpheme). We use semantics and syntax to construct language. Semantics and syntax are part of a language’s grammar. Semantics refers to the process by which we derive meaning from morphemes and words. Syntax refers to the way words are organized into sentences (Chomsky, 1965; Fernández & Cairns, 2011).

We apply the rules of grammar to organize the lexicon in novel and creative ways, which allow us to communicate information about both concrete and abstract concepts. We can talk about our immediate and observable surroundings as well as the surface of unseen planets. We can share our innermost thoughts, our plans for the future, and debate the value of a college education. We can provide detailed instructions for cooking a meal, fixing a car, or building a fire. Through our use of words and language, we are able to form, organize, and express ideas, schema, and artificial concepts.

How Children Learn Language: Theories of Language Acquisition

Psychological theories of language learning differ in terms of the importance they place on nature versus nurture. Yet it is clear that both matter. Children are not born knowing language; they learn to speak by hearing what happens around them. On the other hand, human brains, unlike those of any other animal, are prewired in a way that leads them, almost effortlessly, to learn language.

Perhaps the most straightforward explanation of language development is that it occurs through principles of learning, including association, reinforcement, and the observation of others (Skinner, 1965). There must be at least some truth to the idea that language is learned, because children learn the language that they hear spoken around them rather than some other language. Also supporting this idea is the gradual improvement of language skills with time. It seems that children modify their language through imitation, reinforcement, and shaping, as would be predicted by learning theories.

But language cannot be entirely learned. For one, children learn words too fast for them to be learned through reinforcement. Between the ages of 18 months and five years, children learn up to 10 new words every day (Anglin, 1993). More importantly, language is more generative than it is imitative. Generativity refers to the fact that speakers of a language can compose sentences to represent new ideas that they have never before been exposed to. Language is not a predefined set of ideas and sentences that we choose when we need them, but rather a system of rules and procedures that allows us to create an infinite number of statements, thoughts, and ideas, including those that have never previously occurred. When a child says that they “swimmed” in the pool, for instance, the child is showing generativity. No adult speaker of English would ever say “swimmed,” yet it is easily generated from the normal system of producing language.

Other evidence that refutes the idea that all language is learned through experience comes from the observation that children may learn languages better than they ever hear them. Deaf children whose parents do not speak ASL very well nevertheless are able to learn it perfectly on their own, and may even make up their own language if they need to (Goldin-Meadow & Mylander, 1998). A group of deaf children in a school in Nicaragua, whose teachers could not sign, invented a way to communicate through made-up signs (Senghas, Senghas, & Pyers, 2005). The development of this new Nicaraguan Sign Language has continued and changed as new generations of students have come to the school and started using the language. Although the original system was not a real language, it is becoming closer and closer every year, showing the development of a new language in modern times.

The linguist Noam Chomsky is a believer in the nature approach to language, arguing that human brains contain a language acquisition device that includes a universal grammar that underlies all human language (Chomsky, 1965, 1972). According to this approach, each of the many languages spoken around the world (there are between 6,000 and 8,000) is an individual example of the same underlying set of procedures that are hardwired into human brains. Chomsky’s account proposes that children are born with a knowledge of general rules of syntax that determine how sentences are constructed.

Chomsky differentiates between the deep structure of an idea — how the idea is represented in the fundamental universal grammar that is common to all languages, and the surface structure of the idea— how it is expressed in any one language. Once we hear or express a thought in surface structure, we generally forget exactly how it happened. At the end of a lecture, you will remember a lot of the deep structure (i.e., the ideas expressed by the instructor), but you cannot reproduce the surface structure (the exact words that the instructor used to communicate the ideas).

Although there is general agreement among psychologists that babies are genetically programmed to learn language, there is still debate about Chomsky’s idea that there is a universal grammar that can account for all language learning. Evans and Levinson (2009) surveyed the world’s languages and found that none of the presumed underlying features of the language acquisition device were entirely universal. In their search they found languages that did not have noun or verb phrases, that did not have tenses (e.g., past, present, future), and even some that did not have nouns or verbs at all, even though a basic assumption of a universal grammar is that all languages should share these features.

Language Development

Children begin to learn about language from a very early age (Table LI.1). In fact, it appears that this is occurring even before we are born. Newborns show preference for their mother’s voice and appear to be able to discriminate between the language spoken by their mother and other languages. Babies are also attuned to the languages being used around them and show preferences for videos of faces that are moving in synchrony with the audio of spoken language versus videos that do not synchronize with the audio (Blossom & Morgan, 2006; Pickens, 1994; Spelke & Cortelyou, 1981).

Table LI.1 Stages of Language and Communication Development
Stage Age Developmental Language and Communication
1 From Birth Crying
2 0-6 months Cooing
3 5/6 months Babbling
4 12–18 months One word utterances
5 18–24 months Two word utterances
6 2–3 years Sentence Phase
7 3–5 years Complex sentences; has conversations

You may recall that each language has its own set of phonemes that are used to generate morphemes, words, and so on. Babies can discriminate among the sounds that make up a language (for example, they can tell the difference between the “s” in vision and the “ss” in fission); early on, they can differentiate between the sounds of all human languages, even those that do not occur in the languages that are used in their environments. However, by the time that they are about 1 year old, they can only discriminate among those phonemes that are used in the language or languages in their environments (Jensen, 2011; Werker & Lalonde, 1988; Werker & Tees, 1984).

Can Animals Learn Language?

Nonhuman animals have a wide variety of systems of communication. Some species communicate using scents; others use visual displays, such as baring the teeth, puffing up the fur, or flapping the wings; and still others use vocal sounds. Male songbirds, such as canaries and finches, sing songs to attract mates and to protect territory, and chimpanzees use a combination of facial expressions, sounds, and actions, such as slapping the ground, to convey aggression (de Waal, 1989). Honeybees use a waggle dance to direct other bees to the location of food sources (von Frisch, 1956). The language of vervet monkeys is relatively advanced in the sense that they use specific sounds to communicate specific meanings. Vervets make different calls to signify that they have seen either a leopard, a snake, or a hawk (Seyfarth & Cheney, 1997).

Despite their wide abilities to communicate, efforts to teach animals to use language have had only limited success. One of the early efforts was made by Catherine and Keith Hayes, who raised a chimpanzee named Viki in their home along with their own children. But Viki learned little and could never speak (Hayes & Hayes, 1952). Researchers speculated that Viki’s difficulties might have been in part because she could not create the words in her vocal cords, and so subsequent attempts were made to teach primates to speak using sign language or boards on which they can point to symbols.

Allen and Beatrix Gardner worked for many years to teach a chimpanzee named Washoe to sign using ASL. Washoe, who lived to be 42 years old, could label up to 250 different objects and make simple requests and comments, such as “please tickle” and “me sorry” (Fouts, 1997). Washoe’s adopted daughter Loulis, who was never exposed to human signers, learned more than 70 signs simply by watching her mother sign.

The most proficient nonhuman language speaker is Kanzi, a bonobo who lives at the Language Learning Center at Georgia State University (Savage-Rumbaugh & Lewin, 1994). As you can see in the video clip “Language Recognition in Bonobos,” Kanzi has a propensity for language that is in many ways similar to humans. He learned faster when he was younger than when he got older, he learns by observation, and he can use symbols to comment on social interactions, rather than simply for food treats. Kanzi can also create elementary syntax and understand relatively complex commands. Kanzi can make tools and can even play the video game Pac-Man.



Kanzi and Novel Sentences [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Dhc2zePJFE]. The bonobo Kanzi is the most proficient known nonhuman language speaker.

And yet even Kanzi does not have a true language in the same way that humans do. Human babies learn words faster and faster as they get older, but Kanzi does not. Each new word he learns is almost as difficult as the one before. Kanzi usually requires many trials to learn a new sign, whereas human babies can speak words after only one exposure. Kanzi’s language is focused primarily on food and pleasure and only rarely on social relationships. Although he can combine words, he generates few new phrases and cannot master syntactic rules beyond the level of about a two-year-old human child (Greenfield & Savage-Rumbaugh, 1991).

In sum, although many animals communicate, none of them has a true language. With some exceptions, the information that can be communicated in nonhuman species is limited primarily to displays of liking or disliking, and related to basic motivations of aggression and mating. Humans also use this more primitive type of communication, in the form of nonverbal behaviours such as eye contact, touch, hand signs, and interpersonal distance, to communicate their like or dislike for others, but they (unlike animals) also supplant this more primitive communication with language. Although other animal brains share similarities to ours, only the human brain is complex enough to create language. What is perhaps most remarkable is that although language never appears in nonhumans, language is universal in humans. All humans, unless they have a profound brain abnormality or are completely isolated from other humans, learn language.

Language and Thought

When we speak one language, we agree that words are representations of ideas, people, places, and events. The given language that children learn is connected to their culture and surroundings. But can words themselves shape the way we think about things? Psychologists have long investigated the question of whether language shapes thoughts and actions, or whether our thoughts and beliefs shape our language. Two researchers, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, began this investigation in the 1940s. They wanted to understand how the language habits of a community encourage members of that community to interpret language in a particular manner (Sapir, 1941/1964). Sapir and Whorf proposed that language determines thought. For example, in some languages there are many different words for love. However, in English we use the word love for all types of love. Does this affect how we think about love depending on the language that we speak (Whorf, 1956)? Researchers have since identified this view as too absolute, pointing out a lack of empiricism behind what Sapir and Whorf proposed (Abler, 2013; Boroditsky, 2011; van Troyer, 1994). Today, psychologists continue to study and debate the relationship between language and thought.


The Meaning of Language

Think about what you know of other languages; perhaps you even speak multiple languages. Imagine for a moment that your closest friend fluently speaks more than one language. Do you think that friend thinks differently, depending on which language is being spoken? You may know a few words that are not translatable from their original language into English. For example, the Portuguese word saudade originated during the 15th century, when Portuguese sailors left home to explore the seas and travel to Africa or Asia. Those left behind described the emptiness and fondness they felt as saudade (Figure LI.6). The word came to express many meanings, including loss, nostalgia, yearning, warm memories, and hope. There is no single word in English that includes all of those emotions in a single description. Do words such as saudade indicate that different languages produce different patterns of thought in people? What do you think??

Photograph A shows a painting of a person leaning against a ledge, slumped sideways over a box. Photograph B shows a painting of a person reading by a window.

Figure LI.6 These two works of art depict saudade. (a) Saudade de Nápoles, which is translated into “missing Naples,” was painted by Bertha Worms in 1895. (b) Almeida Júnior painted Saudade in 1899.

The idea that language and its structures influence and limit human thought is called linguistic relativism.

The most frequently cited example of this possibility was proposed by Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941), a linguist who was particularly interested in Aboriginal languages. Whorf argued that the Inuit people of Canada had many words for snow, whereas English speakers have only one, and that this difference influenced how the different cultures perceived snow. Whorf argued that the Inuit perceived and categorized snow in finer details than English speakers possibly could, because the English language constrained perception. He is one of the namesakes of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (linguistic determinism), which hypothesizes that the language that people use determines their thoughts.

Although the idea of linguistic relativism seemed reasonable, research has suggested that language has less influence on thinking than might be expected. For one, in terms of perceptions of snow, although it is true that the Inuit do make more distinctions among types of snow than English speakers do, the latter also make some distinctions (think powder, slush, whiteout, and so forth). And it is also possible that thinking about snow may influence language, rather than the other way around.

In a more direct test of the possibility that language influences thinking, Eleanor Rosch (1973) compared people from the Dani culture of New Guinea, who have only two terms for colour (dark and bright), with English speakers who use many more terms. Rosch hypothesized that if language constrains perception and categorization, then the Dani should have a harder time distinguishing colours than English speakers would. But her research found that when the Dani were asked to categorize colours using new categories, they did so in almost the same way that English speakers did. Similar results were found by Frank, Everett, Fedorenko, and Gibson (2008), who showed that the Amazonian tribe known as the Pirahã, who have no linguistic method for expressing exact quantities (not even the number one), were nevertheless able to perform matches with large numbers without problem.

Although these data led researchers to conclude that the language we use to describe colour and number does not influence our underlying understanding of the underlying sensation, another more recent study has questioned this assumption. Roberson, Davies, and Davidoff (2000) conducted another study with Dani participants and found that, at least for some colours, the names that they used to describe colours did influence their perceptions of the colours. Other researchers continue to test the possibility that our language influences our perceptions, and perhaps even our thoughts (Levinson, 1998), and yet the evidence for this possibility is, as of now, mixed.

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