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Essay: Human language and animal communications

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  • Subject area(s): Linguistics essays
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  • Human language and animal communications
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A key aspect of distinguishing humans from other animals has been the development and use of language. Our understanding of language, its characteristics, its development and its evolution have indicated that language did not evolve from a single ability but from a mass of abilities (Bloom & Tinker, 2001). This essay is going to discuss what language is defined as, it will also cover the different theories of language acquisition and whether it is a learnt aspect or an innate trait.

Human language is primarily a communication system, a means for speakers of a language to communicate with one another. Communication systems have been found in other species such as birds, lions and dolphins, however, none of the communication systems of other species have been found to possess all of the characteristics found in human communication (Slater & Bremner, 2011). Human language is apparently the most complex and diverse means of communication known to any species on Earth. ‘It is a symbolic, rule-governed system that is both abstract and productive, characteristics that enable its speakers to produce and comprehend a wide range of utterances.’ (Slater & Bremner, 2011. P323).

Many years ago, a theorist came up with The Infinite Monkey Theorem. ‘The legend goes that if you sit a monkey down at a typewriter for an infinite length of time, then eventually by hitting the keys at random, the monkey will type out the complete works of Shakespeare.’ (Saxton, 2010. P27). Animals like monkeys don’t have language, however, this theory suggests that they could possibly learn the language, if given enough time. The primary assumption is therefore, that humans and monkeys are not that much different when it comes to communication and language. From the following assumptions, it highly suggests that more intelligent animals could possibly acquire language. (Saxton, 2010).

Several species of birds, parrots for instance, have amazing abilities to impersonate the human voice, but does it mean that the birds can actually ‘talk’ and hold a conversation? Many and possibly all animals can, and do communicate, in the sense that they deliberately send information to each other. Dogs bark and cats meow, but they don’t have a language (Saxton, 2010).

The human language has several features that separate it from the animal communications. Charles Hockett, who is an American linguist, worked on this for several years and he came up with 16 defining characteristics of language. Most of these characteristics and features are shared to some extent with animal communication systems (Saxton, 2010). All languages have rules, which are understood and used by both the speaker and the listener. These rules are often referred to as grammar. By following the rules of grammar, speakers as well as listeners can understand each other and therefore communicate. Linguists who study the structure of language, use the term grammar to describe the package of a language. This consists of 3 key elements: phonology, semantics and syntax (Groome, 2014).

‘Phonology is the organisation and patterning of the sounds of the language, including essential elements such as emphasis and intonation. Phonology also records the regional and social variations of sounds among speakers of the same language. These pronunciation differences are known as accents. The study of phonology also includes an understanding of the physical processes involved in making the sounds we call language’ (Whitehead, 1996. P10).

‘The syntax is concerned with words and the ways in which they can be modified and changed themselves, as well as combined together in groups. Modern syntax records and analyses what is heard and written. The rules of syntax emphasize those word changes and word orders which affect meaning and communication. In the same language community there can still be differences between distinctive groups of speakers in the vocabulary and the patterns of syntax they use’ (Whitehead, 1996. P10).

‘Semantics is the study of meaning in a language and takes us beyond the surface of the words, sounds and into the workings of the mind. Word meanings change over time and have dramatically different effects on our perceptions’ (Whitehead, 1996. P11).

There are many different types of language such as verbal, written, body language and also sign language. Sign language is a visual language which is used in the deaf societies. The hands are the main articulators as they are used to express linguistic information. Most of the time, the face replaces the role of the intonation that is used in the spoken language, and it is also being used to convey emotion and emphasis. (Groome, 2014). ‘Sign languages are not just sequences of pantomimed gestures, nor are they typically visual forms of existing spoken languages ‘ for example, British Sign Language (BSL) has very little in common with spoken English Language, having a very different syntax and rules for combining words.’ (Groome, 2014. P307).
There are several theories of how children acquire language. These can be divided into 3 categories: innate, behaviourist and social interactionist. A behaviourist theory is a theory of learning that states that development and behaviour can be conditioned and shaped by the environment. The innate theory is about the behaviours and actions that children do instinctively. Social interactionist theory is about the behaviours or actions that children learn to do as a result of gaining information and feedback during interaction with adults and other children (Whitehead, 1996).

Language development is all about the ability to communicate, understand what others are saying and understand things like the facial expressions & body gestures. Understanding of writing and reading is also included. Language and communication development is linked to emotional development as well as cognitive development because in order to communicate, you must think about what others are trying to say and you also have to think about what you are trying to express (Groome, 2014).
Many theories of the early development have been influenced by the concept that us, humans, inherit abilities, behaviours and skills. Consequent research since then has shown that the behaviours can also be easily conditioned or shaped. Progressively, the view that is being taken is that both cases apply, although we may be born with specific tendencies. This is sometimes referred to as nature vs nurture debate (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Skinner’s operant conditioning theory is a nurture theory. Skinner’s theory suggests that we learn language mainly because efforts at communicating as a baby, are reinforced or rewarded in some way. For example, a baby may get a smile from the parents if they gurgle or a toddler saying ‘more’ and pointing at whatever they want. (Tassoni, 2014). He reasoned that when babies made sounds that the parents did not recognise ‘ they would not receive any attention, whereas sounds that the parents recognised were noticed and reinforced. Skinner called this process selective reinforcement. This approach would explain why children often speak in similar ways to their parents, using familiar intonation and phrases (Tassoni, 2014).

Skinner’s theory does not explain why all babies and children follow the same pattern of learning the language. If Skinner’s theory was correct, you would expect to see that children’s language develops very differently depending on the amount and type of reinforcement that the adults and others give. This theory also does not explain why young children speak in different ways to the adults around them. If children learn by imitating what they hear and by incorrect sounds or sentences not being reinforced, why do children say such things such as ‘wented’ instead of ‘went’? (Foster-Cohen, 2009). Skinner’s theory also doesn’t explain how children learn the rules of language in such a way that they are quickly able to make up their own sentences. Learning through imitation and reinforcement would mean that children would only be repeating what they have heard, rather than being able to invent their own sentences (Saxton, 2010).

Noam Chomsky’s carried out some work on the development of language(1928) and he believes the idea that our ability to learn language is innate. This is a nature/nativist theory. His theory has been generally acknowledged, completely contrasting Skinner’s ideas, as it explains why majority of babies’ language development follows a specific pattern. He became well known because of his suggestion, that all humans have a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) which they are born with. This is not an actual physical part of the brain, but a structure within our brains that allows babies to absorb and understand the rules of the language they are being exposed to (Breedlove & Watson, 2013) (Tassoni, 2014). The brain can actually examine the language, this is a very complex process but it helps us to understand why children can understand and then use their language correctly and so quickly, without even knowing the rules of the language (grammar). The Language Acquisition Device proves that pretty much all babies can learn any language that they are being exposed to and why all babies follow the same pattern of development even though their abilities may be very different (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Many linguists, including Chomsky believe that there is such thing as ‘Critical Period’. During this period, babies and children are primed to learn to learn a language and that beyond this period, learning a language without studying it becomes difficult. In some rare cases, children have been found in abusive situations where they have not been spoken to and therefore, they were unable to interact. The most famous of these cases was a girl known as Genie. She was rescued at the age of 13, from a household where she was almost never spoken to. When she was rescued she only knew a couple of words. She was then given intensive support and her number of words increased dramatically, but she did not manage to acquire the syntax (Whitehead, 1996) (Tassoni,2014).
During the course of language acquisition, we must learn to perceive and produce particular types of sounds, associate many words with the appropriate meanings, combine the words to produce sentences and discover the rules that govern the manner in which speakers of a language communicate with one another. In order for us to learn, we must sort through and make sense of an impressive amount of information (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

In conclusion, at least some aspects of language development are dependent on innate capacities and knowledge that are specific to language. A nativist position proposed that both information processing skills specific to the acquisition of language and knowledge about certain aspects of language are believed to be passed on from generation to generation via the genes. According to this view, language is not learned but is innate (Foster-Cohen, 2009). On the other hand, however, another view assumes that children acquire language specific concepts and representations of their experiences with language rather than because the concepts and representations are innately specified. For example, children must learn that nouns are used to refer to certain objects, and therefore acquire the notion of nouns from this type of learning. A true explanation of language development will require a combination of innate and also environmental factors (Foster-Cohen, 2009).

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