One of the most human psychological functions, and something that perhaps most sets us apart from other species is our ability to use language. While there is evidence to suggest that some other species also have this ability, we have grown particularly advanced at the use of this skill.
To start with, it may be beneficial to consider what the use of language means to us as a species. It not only enables us to communicate information, gather a collective knowledge of the world and pass down skills to others, but also aides emotional connections between people, which may be useful for feeling support in a confusing world. It is possible that language may in fact be evolutionarily advantageous, which could be why it has become such a large part of everyday life, since those who could communicate better in the distant past were more likely to survive, leading to a natural ability and flair for communication across the entire population.
In the study of language development today, behaviourism is the most popular viewpoint. From this perspective, children learn language mostly through copying what adults have said (modelling) and by learning to repeat things that their parents reward them for (operant conditioning). However, some would argue that this reinforcement from parents is not consistent enough to give such strong results. As well as this, there is evidence that children have some ability to understand the concept of language innately. Deaf children cannot hear what their parents are saying, but quickly learn to make gestures for what they mean instead.
Chomsky suggested that perhaps all children have built in cognitive mechanisms for picking up language and for understanding grammar rules. This theory is supported by the fact that humans are more sensitive to learning both first and second languages early on in their lives, and the ability to pick up language skills quickly decreases as we grow. Perhaps this can be explained by cognitive mechanisms that are specific to children of a young age. This view of language acquisition is known as nativism. The fact that deaf children can invent their own sign language also seems to fit into this theory, since the grammar rules are there, they just can’t hear the sounds, so they instead use another method of communication to fill in the blanks. Of course, problems with this theory quickly arise, since grammar differs a lot from our own in countries such as China, and so it seems nonsensical that an inbuilt understanding of grammar can be found that is specific to the language we end up learning.
Now interactionist theories take the forefront in the area. These explain that both nature and nurture effects must be important in learning language. One such theory is Information Processing Theory, suggesting that humans are like machines, designed to sense information, store it, retrieve it later and then continue processing it, until they ‘learn’ what the correct way to use the information is. In trying to understand how humans develop language, some psychologists are trying to design computer programs which can learn to use language, since if this can be done, the program used for the computer is likely to be very similar to the one inside our brain.
However language is learnt, it has become an extremely important part of everyday life and is now vital for us to understand much of our own lives. In another article I’m going to be looking at how some psychologists have turned away from our own use of language and have tried to see whether other species have the potential to ‘talk’.
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