The remarkable BBC documentary called Why do we talk? explains language acquisition and makes people think of metalanguage and the way that language is used nowadays. By introducing six different experiments, the video brings us closer to the instrument that we use every single day of our lives: language. Even though it is known that language is a unique ability that defines humans, there are still many mysteries to resolve.
Is language something that we are born with or something that we learn? The scientist Deb Roy tries to answer this question by turning his house into his own laboratory and recording every single minute of the life of his own child with the goal of making a comprehensive and unbiased record of his development at home. This three-year study allowed Roy to establish three stages of language: babbling (a single word stage, e.g. apple), a two-word stage (e.g. big apple) and a complete stage which consists of full grammatical sentences (e.g. I want a big apple). With this observation, scientists were able to find a clear correlation between the parents’ language used towards the baby and the language that the little one employed, going from sounds to complex sentences.
Why are humans the only species that can talk? Language is exclusively human and to try to understand why, a second experiment was carried out. As chimps are our nearest species, scientists had been trying to teach them language for seven years but following their lack of success had blamed their failure on the chimps’ short vocal track. Studies on new animals like bees, pigs or dogs provided a new standpoint: the reason why animals cannot talk has nothing to do with physiological limitations but with brain capacity.
This last discovery led experts to begin a brain action study. By introducing Steve, an adult who had an accident that left him with a severe brain damage and a language disability, experts were able to create a brain map that enabled them to learn about the relationship between language and brain. Thanks to new scanning techniques, it was learnt that language and understanding are stored in the left and back lobes of our brains, whilst the ability to speak is situated in the right hemisphere. This advance explained why Steve has unrestricted understanding but he finds it hard to produce language.
Another experiment carried out with newborns allowed scientists to understand that not only are our brains ready to produce language from the day we are born but also whilst in utero. This theory was developed by playing different voices to a newborn to study his reactions. Surprisingly, the baby was able to differentiate his mother’s voice, that he had learnt whilst in utero, and had a unique reaction to her tone of voice.
There are also people with special abilities to learn language. This is the case of Chris, an autistic adult capable of speaking more than twenty languages. Gary Morgan, a language expert that worked with Chris, stated: “despite his disability of the act of talking, he has an incredible ability to learn language, anticipate its rules, memorize and make associations between words”. As a conclusion of this last case, we find that everybody has an innate ability to learn language, just like Chomsky suggested. Even though this linguistic stated in his book Syntactic Structures (Chomsky, 1957) that everybody has an unconscious knowledge about word order and syntax, there are different points of view regarding this topic.
The traditional debate of language is divided into two groups: on one hand, there are those that believe that language is natural, an innate ability; whereas on the other hand, there are others that believe that the act of communication is based on education, and nurturing their learning.
In order to try to clear this debate, the “Forbidden Experiment” took place. As a result of the cruelty involved in isolating a child and observe their capacity to learn a language, this exercise was practiced with birds. In the species used, mating is achieved by the female birds listening to the male song. Initially, two female and one male were introduced into the experiment, allowing the creation of the first isolate copy of this species. The selected male’s unstructured singing meant the females did not initially find him attractive, yet he was still able of reproducing. Surprisingly, the second generation’s singing had slightly improved compared to their ancestor’s. This evolution continued until the fourth generation, when the sound noticeably reached a peak, showing that language is an innate ability and that it was nature that allowed it to develop over four generations.
After the viewing of this documentary, many questions have been answered but many more seem to arise: would humans react the same way as birds in the isolation experiment? If so, which type of communication would they use, which language? What we certainly know is that language makes humans unique. It is an aspect that we should take advantage of and keep studying.