Language and Its Development

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 02.15.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

1 – Introduction to Language

1.2 – Introduction

1.1.2 – Overview

Language is the ability to produce and comprehend both spoken and written (and in the case of sign language, signed) words. Understanding how language works means reaching across many branches of psychology—everything from basic neurological functioning to high-level cognitive processing. Language shapes our social interactions and brings order to our lives. Complex language is one of the defining factors that makes us human. Two of the concepts that make language unique are grammar and lexicon.

1.1.3 – Grammar

Because all language obeys a set of combinatory rules, we can communicate an infinite number of concepts. While every language has a different set of rules, all languages do obey rules. These rules are known as grammar. Speakers of a language have internalized the rules and exceptions for that language’s grammar. There are rules for every level of language—word formation (for example, native speakers of English have internalized the general rule that -ed is the ending for past-tense verbs, so even when they encounter a brand-new verb, they automatically know how to put it into past tense); phrase formation (for example, knowing that when you use the verb “buy,” it needs a subject and an object; “She buys” is wrong, but “She buys a gift” is okay); and sentence formation.

1.1.4 – Lexicon

Every language has its rules, which act as a framework for meaningful communication. But what do people fill that framework up with? The answer is, of course, words. Every human language has a lexicon—the sum total of all of the words in that language. By using grammatical rules to combine words into logical sentences, humans can convey an infinite number of concepts.

1.1.5 – Introduction to Linguistics

Major levels of linguistics: This diagram outlines the various subfields of linguistics, the study of language. These include phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

Language is such a special topic that there is an entire field, linguistics, devoted to its study. Linguistics views language in an objective way, using the scientific method and rigorous research to form theories about how humans acquire, use, and sometimes abuse language. There are a few major branches of linguistics, which it is useful to understand in order to learn about language from a psychological perspective.

1.1.6 – Phonetics and Phonology

Phonetics is the study of individual speech sounds; phonology is the study of phonemes, which are the speech sounds of an individual language. These two heavily overlapping subfields cover all the sounds that humans can make, as well as which sounds make up different languages. A phonologist could answer the question, “Why do BAT and TAB have different meanings even though they are made of the same three sounds, A, B and T?”

1.1.7 – Morphology

Morphology is the study of words and other meaningful units of language like suffixes and prefixes. A morphologist would be interested in the relationship between words like “dog” and “dogs” or “walk” and “walking,” and how people figure out the differences between those words.

1.1.8 – Syntax

Syntax is the study of sentences and phrases, or how people put words into the right order so that they can communicate meaningfully. All languages have underlying rules of syntax, which, along with morphological rules, make up every language’s grammar. An example of syntax coming into play in language is “Eugene walked the dog” versus “The dog walked Eugene.” The order of words is not arbitrary—in order for the sentence to convey the intended meaning, the words must be in a certain order.

1.1.9 – Semantics and Pragmatics

Semantics, most generally, is about the meaning of sentences. Someone who studies semantics is interested in words and what real-world object or concept those words denote, or point to. Pragmatics is an even broader field that studies how the context of a sentence contributes to meaning—for example, someone shouting “Fire!” has a very different meaning if they are in charge of a seven-gun salute than it does if they are sitting in a crowded movie theater.

1.2 – The Structure of Language

1.2.1 – Overview

Every language is different. In English, an adjective comes before a noun (“red house”), whereas in Spanish, the adjective comes after (“casa [house] roja [red].”) In German, you can put noun after noun together to form giant compound words; in Chinese, the pitch of your voice determines the meaning of your words; in American Sign Language, you can convey full, grammatical sentences with tense and aspect by moving your hands and face. But all languages have structural underpinnings that make them logical for the people who speak and understand them.

Rapping in American Sign Language: Shelby Mitchusson performs an ASL translation of “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. ASL and other sign languages have all the same structural underpinnings that spoken languages do.

Five major components of the structure of language are phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, syntax, and context. These pieces all work together to create meaningful communication among individuals.

1.2.2 – Phonemes

A phoneme is the basic unit of phonology. It is the smallest unit of sound that may cause a change of meaning within a language, but that doesn’t have meaning by itself. For example, in the words “bake” and “brake,” only one phoneme has been altered, but a change in meaning has been triggered. The phoneme /r/ has no meaning on its own, but by appearing in the word it has completely changed the word’s meaning!

Phonemes correspond to the sounds of the alphabet, although there is not always a one-to-one relationship between a letter and a phoneme (the sound made when you say the word). For example, the word “dog” has three phonemes: /d/, /o/, and / g /. However, the word “shape,” despite having five letters, has only three phonemes: /sh/, /long-a/, and /p/. The English language has approximately 45 different phonemes, which correspond to letters or combinations of letters. Through the process of segmentation, a phoneme can have a particular pronunciation in one word and a slightly different pronunciation in another.

1.2.3 – Morphemes

Morphemes, the basic unit of morphology, are the smallest meaningful unit of language. Thus, a morpheme is a series of phonemes that has a special meaning. If a morpheme is altered in any way, the entire meaning of the word can be changed. Some morphemes are individual words (such as “eat” or “water”). These are known as free morphemes because they can exist on their own. Other morphemes are prefixes, suffixes, or other linguistic pieces that aren’t full words on their own but do affect meaning (such as  the “-s” at the end of “cats” or the “re-” at the beginning of “redo.”) Because these morphemes must be attached to another word to have meaning, they are called bound morphemes.

Within the category of bound morphemes, there are two additional subtypes: derivational and inflectional. Derivational morphemes change the meaning or part of speech of a word when they are used together. For example, the word “sad” changes from an adjective to a noun when “-ness” (sadness) is added to it. “Action” changes in meaning when the morpheme “re-” is added to it, creating the word “reaction.” Inflectional morphemes modify either the tense of a verb or the number value of a noun; for example, when you add an “-s” to “cat,” the number of cats changes from one to more than one.

1.2.4 – Lexemes

Lexemes are the set of inflected forms taken by a single word. For example, members of the lexeme RUN include “run” (the uninflected form), “running” (inflected form), and “ran.” This lexeme excludes “runner (a derived term—it has a derivational morpheme attached).

Another way to think about lexemes is that they are the set of words that would be included under one entry in the dictionary—”running” and “ran” would be found under “run,” but “runner” would not.

1.2.5 – Syntax

Syntax is a set of rules for constructing full sentences out of words and phrases. Every language has a different set of syntactic rules, but all languages have some form of syntax. In English, the smallest form of a sentence is a noun phrase (which might just be a noun or a pronoun) and a verb phrase (which may be a single verb). Adjectives and adverbs can be added to the sentence to provide further meaning. Word order matters in English, although in some languages, order is of less importance. For example, the English sentences “The baby ate the carrot” and “The carrot ate the baby” do not mean the same thing, even though they contain the exact same words. In languages like Finnish, word order doesn’t matter for general meaning—different word orders are used to emphasize different parts of the sentence.

1.2.6 – Context

Context is how everything within language works together to convey a particular meaning. Context includes tone of voice, body language, and the words being used. Depending on how a person says something, holds his or her body, or emphasizes certain points of a sentence, a variety of different messages can be conveyed. For example, the word “awesome,” when said with a big smile, means the person is excited about a situation. “Awesome,” said with crossed arms, rolled eyes, and a sarcastic tone, means the person is not thrilled with the situation.

2 – Human Language

2.1 – Introduction

2.1.1 – Overview

The world is full of communication. From sparrows chirping and talk radio in the morning to owls hooting and The Tonight Show at night, people and animals are constantly exchanging information through a wide variety of channels. However, there are some key differences between how humans and animals communicate. Specifically, human language is unique on the planet because it has the qualities of generativity, recursion, and displacement.

2.1.2 – Generativity

Human language is generative, which means that it can communicate an infinite number of ideas. This is because it is combinatorial: words can be combined in different orders to create different larger meanings of a sentence. Animal communication does not have this freedom; animals communicate within closed systems, with limited possible ideas to communicate. Birds may have different chirps to signify danger or the location of food, but they cannot combine those chirps together to convey a novel meaning.

2.1.3 – Recursion

Human language is recursive. This means that we can put words, phrases, and sentences inside of themselves without limits. For example, we can say the sentence “Mark likes anchovies.” But we can also put that sentence inside of a sentence: “Carol thinks that Mark likes anchovies.” Then we can put that sentence inside of another sentence: “Greg said that Carol thinks that Mark likes anchovies,” and on and on forever. Obviously, the recursive abilities of language are constrained by the limits of time and memory. But in theory, because units of human language have the ability to be self-containing, we could have an infinite sentence. Animal communication does not have this same flexibility.

2.1.4 – Displacement

Human language has displacement. This means that through the power of language, we can refer to things that aren’t present spatially or temporally. This is obviously a useful trait (it allows us to ask questions like “Where did I leave my wallet?”), and it is one that is largely missing from the animal kingdom. Bees actually do have limited displacement in their communication: They perform a waggle-dance to communicate to other bees the location of the most recent food source they have visited. However, there is no temporal nuance beyond this. Ants and ravens also have limited displacement systems.

Human language is also modality-independent—that is, it is possible to use the features of displacement, generativity, and recursion across multiple modes. Speaking is the auditory form of language, but writing and sign language are visual forms. There are also tactile forms, like Braille.

2.1.5 – Origins of Human Language

The earliest origins of human language are hotly contested, as it is hard to find direct evidence for when people first began to speak. It is also likely that there was an intermediate period during which our communication systems were comparable to those of other primates, and even if we did have knowledge of what this was like, it would be hard to say exactly when we crossed over from animal communication to human language.

2.1.6 – Proto-Indo-European

Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the name for the common ancestor of the Indo-European language family. A language family is a group of languages descended from a common language. The Indo-European language family contains 445  current languages, and all of them are thought to have descended from PIE.

Not all languages that have ever been spoken are still commonly used. For example, Latin, which was spoken in the Roman Empire, is now considered a dead language, or a language that has no native speakers.

2.2 – Human vs. Animal Language

While both animals and humans use systems of communication, the use of complex symbols and open vocal systems is unique to humans.

All animals use some form of communication, although some animal communication is more complex than others. Animal language is any form of communication that shows similarities to human language; however, there are significant differences. Some animals use signs, signals, or sounds to communicate. Lexigrams, or figures and symbols that represent words, are commonly used by chimpanzees and baboons, while animals such as birds and whales use song to communicate among one another. Bees uses complex “dances” to convey information about location. Other animals use odors or body movements to communicate.

Honeybee communication: Bees use body movements to communicate with one another.

Communication in both animals and humans consists of signals. Signals are sounds or gestures that have some meaning to those using them. The meaning is often self-evident based on context: for example, many animals roar, growl, or groan in response to threats of danger; similarly, humans may wave their arms or scream in the event of something dangerous. These signals in these situations are designed to let others in the species know that something is wrong and the animal or human needs help.

Human communication consists of both signals and symbols. Symbols are sounds or gestures that have a specific meaning to a group of people. This meaning could be cultural, group-related, or even related between two specific people. For example, two people may create a “secret” handshake, or a group may develop a passcode that only members are aware of. Symbols, unlike signals, must be taught and learned; they are not instinctual or self-evident.

The dog who knows 1,000 words: Meet Chaser, a dog that “knows” 1,000 words. Chaser’s owners claim that he understands language, as evidenced by his ability to understand novel linguistic stimuli (such as the names of unknown toys). Critics claim that Chaser is not understanding language as humans can, but that he has been conditioned or trained to discriminate between certain phoneme sounds.

What about nonhuman primates, who share many similarities with humans? Nonhuman primates communicate in ways that are very similar to those used by humans; however, there are important differences as well. First and foremost, humans use a larger repertoire of symbols, and these symbols are substantially more complex. Second, and more importantly, nonhuman primates (and other animals who communicate with one another) have what is known as a closed vocal system: this means different sounds cannot be combined together to produce new symbols with different meanings. Humans, by contrast, have open vocal systems, which allow for combinations of symbols to create new symbols with a totally new meaning and therefore allows for an infinite number of ideas to be expressed.

Human language is also the only kind that is modality-independent; that is, it can be used across multiple channels. Verbal language is auditory, but other forms of language—writing and sign language (visual), Braille (tactile)—are possible in more complex human language systems.

One of the most famous case studies in the debate over how complex nonhuman-primate language can be is Koko the gorilla. Koko is famous for having learned over a thousand signs of “Gorilla Sign Language,” a simple sign language developed to try to teach nonhuman primates complex language. Koko can respond in GSL to about two thousand words of spoken English. However, it is generally accepted that she does not use syntax or grammar, and that her use of language does not exceed that of a young human child.

Kanzi with lexigram: Kanzi is a bonobo, whose trainers claim that not only can he understand human language, but he can manipulate human language to create sentences. Here, Kanzi is in a research session at Great Ape Trust of Iowa using a lexigram with his trainer. There continues to be debate as to whether nonhuman primates, including bonobos, are actually learning and understanding languages or are simply demonstrating the effects of operant conditioning (learning to associate words and signs via reinforcement).

Parrot vs. Child: The Intelligence Test—Extraordinary Animals—Earth: It’s Griffin versus the nursery school children in another bird brain test for this Extraordinary Animal. Subscribe to BBC Earth: BBC Earth YouTube Channel: BBC Earth Facebook (ex-UK only) BBC Earth Twitter Visit for all the latest animal news and wildlife videos This is a channel from BBC Worldwide who help fund new BBC programmes.

2.3 – Human Language Development

2.3.1 – Theories of Language Development

Humans, especially children, have an amazing ability to learn language. Within the first year of life, children will have learned many of the necessary concepts to have functional language, although it will still take years for their capabilities to develop fully. Some people learn two or more languages fluently over their lives (often starting from childhood); these people are bilingual or multilingual. Multiple theories have been proposed to explain the development of language, and related brain structures,  in children.

2.3.2 – Skinner: Operant Conditioning

B. F. Skinner believed that children learn language through operant conditioning; in other words, children receive “rewards” for using language in a functional manner. For example, a child learns to say the word “drink” when she is thirsty; she receives something to drink, which reinforces her use of the word for getting a drink, and thus she will continue to do so. This follows the four-term contingency that Skinner believed was the basis of language development—motivating operations, discriminative stimuli , response, and reinforcing stimuli. Skinner also suggested that children learn language through imitation of others, prompting, and shaping.

2.3.3 – Chomsky: Language Acquisition Device

Noam Chomsky’s work discusses the biological basis for language and claims that children have innate abilities to learn language. Chomsky terms this innate ability the “language acquisition device.” He believes children instinctively learn language without any formal instruction. He also believes children have a natural need to use language, and that in the absence of formal language children will develop a system of communication to meet their needs. He has observed that all children make the same type of language errors, regardless of the language they are taught. Chomsky also believes in the existence of a “universal grammar,” which posits that there are certain grammatical rules all human languages share. However, his research does not identify areas of the brain or a genetic basis that enables humans’ innate ability for language.

2.3.4 – Piaget: Assimilation and Accommodation

Jean Piaget’s theory of language development suggests that children use both assimilation and accommodation to learn language. Assimilation is the process of changing one’s environment to place information into an already-existing schema (or idea). Accommodation is the process of changing one’s schema to adapt to the new environment. Piaget believed children need to first develop mentally before language acquisition can occur. According to him, children first create mental structures within the mind (schemas) and from these schemas, language development happens.

2.3.5 – Vygotsky: Zone of Proximal Development

Lev Vygotsky’s theory of language development focused on social learning and the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD is a level of development obtained when children engage in social interactions with others; it is the distance between a child’s potential to learn and the actual learning that takes place. Vygotsky’s theory also demonstrated that Piaget underestimated the importance of social interactions in the development of language.

Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories are often compared with each other, and both have been used successfully in the field of education.

2.3.6 – Language and Cognition

The following timeline gives an overview of the ages at which children generally acquire language:

  • 4–6 months: Babbling using all sounds.
  • 6–9 months: Babbling becomes more focused—narrowing of sounds.
  • 10–12 months: First words develop.
  • 18–24 months: Children begin using two-word phrases (example: “Me up” or “Get milk”).
  • 2–3 years: Children begin using three-word phrases in correct order with inflection.
  • 4–5 years: Children start speaking with nearly complete syntax.
  • 5–7 years: Children begin using and understanding more complex language.
  • 9 years and older: Children understand almost all forms of language.

In language acquisition, there is a hypothesis that a “critical period,” or a time when it is optimal to learn a language, exists in children. Part of this hypothesis is that if a child is not exposed to a language in the early years of life, he or she will never have full intuitive command of a first language.

One of the canonical case studies that supporters of the critical-period hypothesis turn to is Genie the “feral child,” a young girl born in 1957 who, due to horrible abuse and neglect, never learned a language. She never managed to fully acquire verbal language as a result.

2.4 – Human Language and the Brain

2.4.1 – Overview

Several areas of the brain must function together in order for a person to develop, use, and understand language.

Language and the brain: The areas of the brain necessary for processing language: Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area, the primary motor cortex, the posterior middle temporal gyrus, and the middle and posterior superior temporal gyrus.

Without the brain, there would be no language. The human brain has a few areas that are specific to language processing and production. When these areas are damaged or injured, capabilities for speaking or understanding can be lost, a disorder known as aphasia. These areas must function together in order for a person to develop, use, and understand language.

2.4.2 – Broca’s Area

Broca’s area, located in the frontal lobe of the brain, is linked to speech production, and recent studies have shown that it also plays a significant role in language comprehension. Broca’s area works in conjunction with working memory to allow a person to use verbal expression and spoken words. Damage to Broca’s area can result in productive aphasia (also known as Broca’s aphasia), or an inability to speak. Patients with Broca’s can often still understand language, but they cannot speak fluently.

2.4.3 – Wernicke’s Area

Language and the brain: The areas of the brain necessary for language. Spoken word, cognition, and written word all are processed in different parts of the brain in different orders.

Wernicke’s area, located in the cerebral cortex, is the part of the brain involved in understanding written and spoken language. Damage to this area results in receptive aphasia (also called Wernicke’s aphasia). This type of aphasia manifests itself as a loss of comprehension, so sometimes while the patient can apparently still speak, their language is nonsensical and incomprehensible.

2.4.4 – Auditory Cortex and Angular Gyrus

The primary auditory cortex, located in the temporal lobe and connected to the auditory system, is organized so that it responds to neighboring frequencies in the other cells of the cortex. It is responsible for identifying pitch and loudness of sounds.

The angular gyrus, located in the parietal lobe of the brain, is responsible for several language processes, including number processing, spatial recognition and attention.

2.5 – Linguistic Relativity

2.5.1 – Overview

Language and thought tend to influence one another in a dual, cyclical relationship.

It is easy to wonder which comes first, the thought or the language. Does an individual first think of an idea or did speaking, hearing, or reading about an idea spur a thought? Can thought exist without language? You might as well ask which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Language and thought (or “cognition”) tend to interact in a dual and cyclical relationship, a theory known overall as linguistic relativity. What one thinks becomes what one communicates, and what one communicates can lead to new thoughts. There are several different theories that aim to discuss the relationship between cognition and language.

2.5.2 – The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the grammatical structure of a person’s language influences the way he or she perceives the world. The hypothesis has been largely abandoned by linguists as it has found at best very limited experimental support, and it does not hold much merit in psychology. For instance, studies have not shown that speakers of languages lacking a subjunctive mood (such as Chinese) experience difficulty with hypothetical problems. The weaker version of this theory does have some merit, however. For example, different words mean different things in different languages; not every word in every language has a one-to-one exact translation in a different language. Because of these small but important differences, using the wrong word within a particular language (because you believe it to mean something else) can have dire consequences.

The canonical example of studying linguistic relativity is in the area of color naming. Sapir and Whorf, as believers in linguistic relativity, would believe that people whose languages partition the color spectrum along different lines actually perceive colors in a different way. However, recent research has supported the idea that human color perception is governed more by biological and physical rather than linguistic constraints, regardless of how many color words a language has.

2,5.3 – Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

According to the theory that drives cognitive-behavioral therapy, the way a person thinks has a huge impact on what she or he says and does. Founded by Aaron T. Beck, this school of thought discusses the interplay among emotion, behavior, language, and thought. Since internal dialogue is a form of language, the way we speak to ourselves can influence our daily lives. Problems with our internal dialogue, known as cognitive distortions, can lead to negative behaviors or serious emotional problems.

2.5.4 – Behavioral Economics

Language and thought: What a person thinks (thought) has a direct impact on what that person says (language), and vice versa.

The field of behavioral economics studies the effect of psychological and cognitive factors on individuals’ behavior in an economic context. In this field (and others), researchers have shown that the more vividly an event is described, the more likely people will believe it is true. Thus, people will draw different conclusions and make different choices about a situation based on the language used to describe that situation.

Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless Psychology under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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