Exploring the Universality and Diversity of Human Language Essay
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Language is an all-important tool of mankind for expression. We think, speak and write in languages. Indeed, our use of sophisticated mode of expression such as language is what distinguishes us from animals. Language is already very much a part of us, but we often take it for granted. We do not give it much thought and probably quite a few attempt to make sense out of its nature and its complexities. Distinguished authorities in psychology, philosophy and linguistics support the concept of language as a universal human faculty.
If it is not, why is it that despite little knowledge of language and its correct usage, children as young as two years, of any race or ethnicity, quickly learn to speak and understand any language they are exposed to? It is astonishing how thousands of various languages and dialects have evolved since the confusion at Babel in Genesis. The Ethnologue has listed more than six thousand (6,000) languages from all over the world (Grimes, 2001).
Note that we do not only refer to civilized languages, and there could probably be more that have not been documented yet, or, have not even been heard of by the civilized population (i. e. tribal languages).
Now, with the innumerable modes of pronunciation and styles of language use, we can probably come up with a million varieties of languages. If language is a universal human faculty, why are human languages so different? Universality of Language Even the scriptures provided some evidence to substantiate the concept that language is universal. Before the Tower of Babel incident, as cited in the book of Genesis, remember that mankind had one language. Ever since God intervened to cause confusion at Babel and men dispersed to various parts of the earth, human language have evolved into various kinds.
Still, however, human languages are astoundingly similar! In what way are human languages the same, and why? Kumar (1997) cited that children could learn almost any language with the right timing. Children learn at a remarkable rate if they are immersed in the language during their critical period for language development, which is usually between the age of two to five years. Such that at the age of six, they would have “learned to use and understand about thirteen thousand (13,000) words” (Dunbar, 1996).
Further, children of average intellectual capacity learn about ten (10) new words a day by the time they reach their first birthday. If we have to do our math, this is the “equivalent of a new word every 90 minutes of (their) waking life” (Dunbar, 1996). It is amazing how children learn a language in such a short time and, only by hearing a few words and short sentences from their parents and others, they are able to come up with virtually many others, most of which even follow correct grammatical principles. There are no set rules or systems of teaching children their first language.
Just by the mere exposure to the language in their natural environment, they begin to mimic what they hear, experiment on words and phrases, then adults correct them at one point, and quite easily, they learn to speak the language despite its complexities. This is referred to as the “environmental input” in the article of Nowak and his colleagues (2002), that appeared in the 6 June 2002 of the Nature. Because of this environmental input, “children construct an internal representation of the underlying grammar. Children are not told of the grammatical rules.
Neither children nor adults are ever aware of the grammatical rules that specify their own language” (p. 614). Wilhelm von Humboldt (as cited in Chomsky, 1968) believes that: “underlying any human language we will find a system that is universal, that simply expresses man’s unique intellectual attributes. For this reason, it was possible for him to maintain the rationalist view that language is not really learned – certainly not taught – but rather develops from within, in an essentially predetermined way, when the appropriate environmental conditions exist.
One cannot really teach a first language, he argued, but can only provide the thread along which it will develop of its own accord, by processes more like maturation than learning” (Chomsky, 1968). Moreover, it does seem that languages transcend cultural boundaries. A good evidence of this would be how children learn in the same way regardless of cultural background. We can only wonder why when a family moves to another community with a different dialect for instance, children are the quickest to adapt and learn the new language.
Do humans have the innate ability and mechanism for acquiring language within the brain? Lee (1997 ) looked into this innateness of language from a neurobiological standpoint. He asserted that there is “certain preexisting universal biological order in the brain. If they did not preexist, how would the many brains build synaptic connections that were similar to one another, even the brains of people that speak different languages?
” Certain parts (such as Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) of the brain are responsible for specialized linguistic functions, which means, “there are innate physical structure of the brain which govern our learning of language. ” Chomsky (1975), a noted linguist, believes that we are “specifically designed” to learn language. As Biehler (1976) puts it, there are “striking uniformities” in languages of other cultures that follow grammatical patterns (universal grammar). Even Farrel (1978) agrees that there is “an underlying design original to all languages.
” For all of them, language is simply a part of our genetic endowment, or as the evolutionist Haugen (1973) would say it, we have the “gift of language,” or the “universal gift of tongues. ” Chomsky and other linguists believe that there are system of principles, conditions, and rules that are elements of all human languages. Human languages contain structure, which means they are composed of several words grouped basically by function (verbs, nouns, etc. ) and this is referred to in linguistic literatures as innate universal grammar.
“The human brain is equipped with a learning algorithm, which enables us to learn certain languages. This algorithm can learn each of the existing 6,000 human languages and presumably many more, but it is impossible that algorithm could learn every computable language” (Nowak, Komarova and Niyogi, p. 615). What are the implications of all these? Regardless of cultural background, whatever language we know or use now, we are all innately predisposed to comprehend design in languages and we can easily grasp and work around grammatical rules, however complex or elaborate they are.
Although of course, young children are at an advantage in using this gift, as timing in acquiring a language is important as well. Nonetheless, as a general statement, regardless of cultural or ethnic background, man’s remarkable ability to communicate through language, in itself, is already a good proof of the universality of language as a human faculty. As mentioned in the Atlas of Languages (1996), there is no known society or community in the world that is language-less.
From the evolutionists’ point of view, language is essentially a human trait and this is a powerful evidence on the universality of language. While animals of the same kind have their own way of communicating, only humans had “the power of recursion to create an open-ended and limitless system of communication” Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch, 2002, p. 1578). Why and how humans acquired the faculty of language and managed to “spread from human to human and from culture to culture,” (Knezek, 1997) are often the usual subjects of discussion of scholars.
Evolutionists would agree that “the faculty meditating human communication appears remarkably different from that of other living creatures…. that the human faculty of language appears to be organized like the genetic code with respect to its scope of expression. ” Animals have been “designed on the basis of highly conserved developmental systems that read an almost universal language coded in DNA base pairs,” however, “they lack a common universal code of communication” (Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch, 2002, p. 1569).