General Question

Ltryptophan's avatar

Are language skills instinctual, or are they an advanced tool instinct?

Asked by Ltryptophan (10271points) October 6th, 2010 from iPhone

Are modern men born “speaking tongues” or are we still adapting our uniquely advanced tool reasoning to facilitate speech and writing?

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10 Answers

iamthemob's avatar

It’s probably a little bit a both – but our brains are uniquely tuned for language/language development. Particular parts of the brain, when damaged, solely affect a person’s ability to communicate. For instance, damage to a part of the brain called Wernicke’s area may result in a disorder of speech called “word salad,” where an individual will perceive themselves as speaking clearly, but the words they use are utterly nonsensical.

cazzie's avatar

Like @iamthemob said, we have a specific speech centre in our brains. It’s really quite amazing… Our ability to recognise objects is in one part, but our ability to ‘speak it’s name’ is in another section.

Languages themselves evolve and their use evolves as our society does (language is a social medium, and has evolved most recently to include ways of communicating that reflect our technological advances.) So, in THAT way, I think we’re always adapting our use of language and finding new ways to facilitate speech and writing. Take the social online community called Second Life, for example.

We’re not born knowing how to use a cell phone or born with a vocabulary, of course, but we are born with a reasoning, as you say, to make sense of our world and be social and communicate with our fellow beings. If we didn’t have a language… we soon would have one. I believe, anyway.

pathfinder's avatar

it is skill to underestund and another side of the coin it is the secret of another language

GeorgeGee's avatar

There are enough examples in other species of meaningful calls and signals to realize that communication is a very powerful evolutionary advantage. We can only see to the horizon with our eyes, but we can determine what’s past there by using language. Bees use a simple language to communicate the location of food to the hive. It is well established that a substantial portion of the brain is dedicated to language production and understanding and that the vocal system has evolved to allow a wide range of vocalizations. We are not simply hairless apes.

zophu's avatar

As beautiful as human instincts are, I see no reason why we should expect babies to develop complex speech and writing skills as they grow if we put them on an island to be raised by humorless robotic arms. We are instinctively open to learning language, especially during early stages in development, but we do not know it automatically. We are so strongly affected by our environments, I have never understood why people separate our cultures from our nature. Language skills are learned.

Feral children don’t come out of the woods ready to shake hands.

GeorgeGee's avatar

Actually @zophu, feral children DO develop language as long as they have at least one other human to interact with. One of the classic cases is “Poto and Cabengo,” two girls who developed their own language without any outside guidance.

zophu's avatar

Those children were extremely neglected, but they still had exposure to some language. Just because they created their own language does not mean it happened spontaneously simply because of their human genetics, and their interaction with each other. I’m sure there would be some communication between humans if they were completely isolated with developed culture for their entire lives, but there’s no reason to assume it would be more than basic invention.

It could be said that inventing is instinctual, I guess, especially when it comes to language. We learn language very well, but language skills themselves seem to be very basic instinctually, if they are there at all. I think the reason this seems unlikely is because language spreads so efficiently from mind to mind. I think language skills express thought that we innately have, but that those skills themselves are constructs from that thought and not there to begin with. If that still qualifies as instinct, then sure, there are instinctually language skills. I still think the instinct is to create language skills, and not the skills themselves. A baby crying for attention, is a part of instinctive communication, sure. But an older child asking for a specific food they have a craving for because they feel a viral infection setting in is not an instinct, it is a development upon instinct that is aided by cultural influences.

I’m just very resistant to the notion that human nature is “meant” to have certain aspects to it that are clearly just cultural entities. It’s that way of thought that has, and continues to, destroy so much original human culture; both cultures of the the past that have developed over thousands of years, and cultures of the present that don’t get a chance to really start because they’re immediately considered to be against human nature simply because they don’t adopt certain norms that are considered natural because they’re found in many widespread cultures. It’s something that has to be kept in check, and it’s difficult to do with language, because it itself is a part of the problem.

mattbrowne's avatar

All babies are born with a Broca and Wernicke area in their brains waiting to be filled up.

GeorgeGee's avatar

The conclusion of virtually every psychologist, psychiatrist and linguist who has studied Poto and Cabengo is that their language developed as it did because the girls wanted to communicate with each other and had the innate ability to do so, rather than because of explicit language training by an adult.

zophu's avatar

I imagine people generally learn the vast majority of their language intuitively rather than through explicit training, picking things up here and there on context clues. Over time, the girls seeing multiple things pointed at and named, being given orders to sit, move, eat, clean, wait, etc.; they would have instinctive incentive to fill in the blanks, but the ways that they did it were probably just inventive. I would be surprised if their language didn’t include conventions that don’t exist in simpler languages such as the Piraha people’s seemingly unique language.

Language deprivation is an illness as far as I can tell, not much potential for instincts to have ever been developed to correct for it. We instinctively learn language from a nurturing culture, and so we instinctively teach it, but I don’t know. It just seems like something that is learned rather than innately known.

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