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.