General Question

LostInParadise's avatar

Is there a language instinct in humans?

Asked by LostInParadise (28710points) December 6th, 2014

This question was asked previously but I would like to open it up again. I was looking into some of the controversy regarding the field of evolutionary psychology. I thought that, at the very least, there would be agreement that we evolved to speak languages. I was surprised that most articles said no. Just do a Google search on “language instinct”

It seems to me that the evidence in favor of an instinct for developing language is pretty strong:

There is no place in the world that does not have a spoken language. They all have extensive vocabularies and grammars and people who we might deem primitive can have highly sophisticated languages.

Children acquire a knowledge of language grammar as well as a vocabulary of several thousand words by an early age. By contrast, young children take much longer to learn how to count and to understand addition and subtraction. There are still hunter-gatherer tribes that do not have words for numbers greater than 3. We are definitely not wired to work with numbers.

There are areas of the brain devoted to speech and our larynx allows us to make a large assortment of sounds that others are easily able to distinguish.

I would not argue in favor of Chomsky’s universal grammar, but I do think that there is a link between language and thought. Some might argue that we do not have a language instinct per se, but language arises naturally out of our thought and communication processes. I don’t think the point is worth arguing. In either case, language arises in a natural way whenever groups of people live together.

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16 Answers

Dutchess_III's avatar

I think definitely yes. Even in a void babies will start babbling.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

There are still hunter-gatherer tribes that do not have words for numbers greater than 3. We are definitely not wired to work with numbers.

Just because that might be the case, it doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t wired to work with numbers, as well. The fact that some tribes might not have words for numbers beyond three could have a great deal to do with their surroundings, environment and culture in general, and might not be indicative of an inherent inability to understand numbers. This line of thinking is called linguistic relativity and it dictates that people who speak different languages not only think about the world differently, but also perceive it differently – hence the possibility that just because they don’t have words for numbers greater than three, it doesn’t necessarily indicate much about our general understanding of numbers.

Edit: Which doesn’t answer your broader question, obviously, but I just wanted to point it out.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

“I would not argue in favor of Chomsky’s universal grammar…”

Why not? Or a version of it? Doesn’t have to be 100% correct in order for it to hold some merit.

”...language arises naturally out of our thought and communication processes.”

No communication is possible without a language to communicate it upon. Might be as simple as pointing to something, or slapping forehead with hand, or clapping, or putting finger over lips and breathing “ssshhhhh”, rolling the eyes, intentionally coughing over someone else’s speak. There are many different levels of language.

As well, the cognitive studies department at Washington University uses over seventy different language based tests to determine a patients cognitive awareness… thought capacity.

I am of the belief that no thought may be thunk without a language to think the thought upon. Honey bees have limited thought capacity relative to the ability of their figure 8 waggle dance to manifest them. A baby, with limited language cannot think about a ball any further than their language skills allow them to be aware of, “ba”. But a rubber scientist with vast vocabulary can think about the ball on many levels of “red, bouncy, round, polymer, elasticity, roll, inflate, throw, gravity, planet, explosion…”

Here2_4's avatar

I think the question involves instinct, not learned behaviors.
I would like to know whether you mean spoken language only, or also a language of gestures.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Same thing @Here2_4. Language is just symbolic representation of any kind.

CWOTUS's avatar

I think that @LostInParadise‘s point about “not being wired to use numbers” is a good one, @DrasticDreamer. As he notes, there are cultures who have words for “one”, “two” and “many”. It’s not a completely natural thing to learn or use numbers; it depends on the culture. (In the same way that some cultures with a cultural understanding of the concept count “years” while others count “moons”.)

It’s a good question, and it would be interesting to study if there was a way to set up a control group of children raised by other species, if that wouldn’t be inherently unethical, or a study of children born to mute parents, which wouldn’t be, but it might be difficult to arrange the elements of the group for study.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

”...I do think that there is a link between language and thought…”

Language always represents a thought. That’s what it does. That’s all it does.

Language is a material lens that allows us to know the immaterial reality of thought.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@CWOTUS Yes, but on the same hand: Is there any culture in the world that doesn’t count at all? I’m only pointing out that it can’t be concluded, from the specific point that was made, that numbers aren’t just as natural as language – since both language and numbers exist in every culture. The general consensus is that there has been a basic (“1, 2, many”) understanding of numbers since 6 million years ago, and that the need for more complex numbers didn’t arise until people needed to start cooperating with each other to higher degree. Which, again, could simply be why some tribes only have the need for numbers up to 3.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I think we’re wired to work with numbers. The concept just needed to be introduced. It’s like people who are governed by the weather, be it snow or rain or whatever, have more words to more precisely describe specific weather.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

That’s right @Dutchess_III. And since the weather man has more words to describe a phenomenon, he is capable of thinking about it on a completely different level than someone without that vocabulary.

Awareness first. Label second. Description third. Then and only then, are we capable of actually thinking about it, and only to the degree relative to our capacity to describe it.

Not so long ago, we thought of epilepsy as demon possession, because the phenomenal awareness, labels, and descriptions didn’t exist for us to think about it any other way.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I’ve heard it said many times, that people who speak French, English, and or Japanese actually think in different ways depending upon what language they use to describe a phenomenon.

Same with the languages of math vs poetry. Math allows me to think about why the sun rises. Poetry allows me to think about how I feel about sun rises. Neither is more valid that another. Using them together brings greater conscious awareness than using them individually.

One might say that the person who speaks the most languages is the person most enlightened amongst peers.

flutherother's avatar

I wouldn’t call it an instinct but I think the way human beings process information as abstract concepts gives rise to language.

Bill1939's avatar

I think that communication is instinctive. Most creatures, insects, birds and other animals communicate with their kind. Whether their gestures or calls are language may be debated, those with more evolved brains, however, clearly develop a language. Twins, for example often invent their own language as they interact. Babies with hearing-impaired parents quickly learn that crying is ineffective and use non-audible forms to convey their needs.

The young observe the actions of those around them and instinctively mimic them. In this way, they acquire the common forms of communication. Studies have shown that children have an instinctive ability to recognize the difference between more and less even when raised in cultures that have not acquired an expanded system of numbering. Hundreds of years passed before zero was invented, without which sophisticated mathematics is not possible.

Dutchess_III's avatar

” Most creatures, insects, birds and other animals communicate with their kind. ” GA, @Bill1939.

wsxwh111's avatar

I’m not a proffessional so I’m gonna just say what I experienced.. I’m a chinese student in my final year in university, going to NYC for master degree. I like the U.S. and also watched a bunch of american TV shows, I can get most of the jokes, but it’s kinda hard to make a great one.
Back to your question, I think it depends on nature and effort.
How good your language is is one thing, vocabulary, comprehension, etc. Your characteristics and differences between cultures also matters a lot. And the other critical thing is one’s effort to understand another language&culture.
I do think if everyone has resources and passion on studying languages, there’ll be little “language instinct”, “culture instinct”? maybe.

morphail's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies so if I don’t have the vocabulary for a topic, I can’t think about it? That seems weird to me. You seem to say that we though epilepsy was demonic possession because we lacked the labels and descriptions to describe it any other way. What words were we missing? Surely we didn’t understand epilepsy because we didn’t have a good understanding of how the body worked.

I don’t have specific biological vocabulary to describe marine life, but I can still recognize and think about and describe the fish I see when I swim. It might take me longer to describe them because I don’t have the specialized vocabulary but that’s all.
If we can’t find a specific word for something, we paraphrase. If we want to talk about a certain topic a lot or in detail, we might invent or repurpose some terms to make communication more efficient.

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