Language as a definition is “A set of spoken, written, or signed words and the way we combine them to communicate a meaning.”
Perhaps we should change that definition to include “Using complex grammar” to really distinguish human language from animal languages especially that a lot of animals are capable – when taught – to sign away their feelings or needs.
A language is not necessarily spoken, written or signed. For example if I want to find a bathroom in Sweden or Thailand and really had to pee, people would still understand me even if I spoke a totally different language.
Language is important for expressing our thoughts and communicating them to other people’s brains, and actually to our own consciousness. When you see something new, you have to ask “What is this?” because otherwise you wouldn’t have a way of communicating it to other people or even to your own memory.
We humans have nearly 7,000 languages. But no matter how they sound we can break down their structure into three building blocks:
- Phonemes: Very short distinctive sound units. Different languages vary considerably in the number of phonemes they have in their systems. The total phonemic inventory in languages varies from as few as 11 in Rotokas and Pirahã to as many as 141 in !Xũ. Some languages use a different subset of phonemes like such as Arabic which doesn’t have the /p/ constant.
- Morphemes: The smallest unit that carry a meaning. These morphemes are words or parts of words [a prefix or a suffix].
- Grammar: The system of rules that enable us to communicate with and understand others. If you didn’t know those rules you wouldn’t be able to communicate your thoughts to others and you wouldn’t understand what others are talking about. You can still understand the things they’re saying but it wouldn’t make much sense to you.
Just as the structure of the language starts small, so does how we learn language. We start very young.
The word “infant” comes from the Latin term “Infas”: not-speaking. But as early as 4 months those infants can actually recognize differences in speech and start to read lips, matching mouth movements with their corresponding sounds like “ah”, “ee”, “ooo”. And even at this age, you have to watch what you say in front of these kids because this also marks the beginning of the receptive language – The ability to understand what’s being said both to, and about us.
Soon that receptive language blooms to accommodate productive language, when instead of just understanding other people, babies start developing the ability to produce words. Of course that takes a while. But in the meantime, they get a lot of practice babbling.
Beginning at about 4 months, stage of speech development in which the infant spontaneously utters various sounds at first unrelated to the household language. You may hear words familiar to you like “baba”,”dada” or “mama”. However, babbling is not an imitation of adult speech. In fact, it typically includes sounds from many languages and a stranger couldn’t tell if a kid was Arabic, Italian or American just by the sound of their babbling. Similarly, deaf babies will watch their parents signing and start babbling with their hands.
By about 10 months, that babbling morphs into something that starts to make sense, and “mama” probably really means Mama.
Now without exposure to other languages, a child will lose the ability to both hear and create particular tones and sounds that aren’t part of their own household language. By the time of their first birthday, most kids will be entering the one word stage of language development.
The one-word stage starts between the ages of 1 to 2, during which the child speaks mostly in single words. They now know that sounds carry specific meanings, and can connect the sound teddy to that furry toy they have.
By around 18 months, their capacity for learning new words jumps from about 1 word a week to 1 a day, and by the time they’re 2 years old, they’re probably speaking in 2-word statements.
Telegraphic speech: In early stages, a child speaks like a telegram – “Go Car” – using mostly nouns and verbs. They sound like clumsy texts or old school telegrams. “Want juice”, “I want”. That kind of stuff. These little sentences make sense and follow the rules of their language’s syntax. For example, an English-speaking child will put an adjective before a noun – Black cat –, while an Arabic speaker will reverse that – قطة سوداء–. From there, the average kid is soon uttering longer phrases and complete sentences.
Some people argue that kids learn to speak by associating words with meanings largely through reinforcement. For example, if a baby says “mmm” and their mother gives them milk that child will find the milk and the attention rewarding and will eventually work their way to saying “Milk”.
Some others argue that all languages are similar consisting of nouns, verbs and adjectives, and humans are born with an innate ability to acquire language, and even a genetic predisposition to learn grammatical rules. Meaning that we’re hard wired to speaking language from day 1.
Research and studies of other species have given us a sense that some of it is innate, while the role of learning and exposure is also important.
Some diseases like Aphasia and other brain injuries remind us how thinking and language are both separate and intricately entwined. For instance if we didn’t speak any language how are we going to think? And because language often helps frame your ideas; your thinking might actually be influenced by which language you’re using.