Human Language

Introduction to Human Language

Human language is unique because it is generative, recursive, and has displacement.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the factors that distinguish human language

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Human language is generative, which means that it can communicate an infinite number of ideas from a finite number of parts.
  • Human language is recursive, which means that it can build upon itself without limits.
  • Human language uses displacement, which means that it can refer to things that are not directly present.
  • The origins of human language are disputed because there is a lack of direct evidence.
  • Proto-Indo-European is the ancestor language of hundreds of languages today.

Key Terms

  • recursive: Used to describe a language with units (such as sentences or phrases) that can contain themselves (such as sentences within sentences or phrases within phrases).
  • generative: Used to describe a language that can convey an infinite number of ideas based on different combinations of words or symbols.
  • dead language: A language with no remaining native speakers.
  • displacement: The ability of a language to describe things that are not present.

The world is full of communication. From sparrows chirping and talk radio in the morning to owls hooting and The Tonight Show at night, people and animals are constantly exchanging information through a wide variety of channels. However, there are some key differences between how humans and animals communicate. Specifically, human language is unique on the planet because it has the qualities of generativity, recursion, and displacement.


Human language is generative, which means that it can communicate an infinite number of ideas. This is because it is combinatorial: words can be combined in different orders to create different larger meanings of a sentence. Animal communication does not have this freedom; animals communicate within closed systems, with limited possible ideas to communicate. Birds may have different chirps to signify danger or the location of food, but they cannot combine those chirps together to convey a novel meaning.


Human language is recursive. This means that we can put words, phrases, and sentences inside of themselves without limits. For example, we can say the sentence “Mark likes anchovies.” But we can also put that sentence inside of a sentence: “Carol thinks that Mark likes anchovies.” Then we can put that sentence inside of another sentence: “Greg said that Carol thinks that Mark likes anchovies,” and on and on forever. Obviously, the recursive abilities of language are constrained by the limits of time and memory. But in theory, because units of human language have the ability to be self-containing, we could have an infinite sentence. Animal communication does not have this same flexibility.


Human language has displacement. This means that through the power of language, we can refer to things that aren’t present spatially or temporally. This is obviously a useful trait (it allows us to ask questions like “Where did I leave my wallet?”), and it is one that is largely missing from the animal kingdom. Bees actually do have limited displacement in their communication: They perform a waggle-dance to communicate to other bees the location of the most recent food source they have visited. However, there is no temporal nuance beyond this. Ants and ravens also have limited displacement systems.

Human language is also modality-independent—that is, it is possible to use the features of displacement, generativity, and recursion across multiple modes. Speaking is the auditory form of language, but writing and sign language are visual forms. There are also tactile forms, like Braille.

Origins of Human Language

The earliest origins of human language are hotly contested, as it is hard to find direct evidence for when people first began to speak. It is also likely that there was an intermediate period during which our communication systems were comparable to those of other primates, and even if we did have knowledge of what this was like, it would be hard to say exactly when we crossed over from animal communication to human language.


Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the name for the common ancestor of the Indo-European language family. A language family is a group of languages descended from a common language. The Indo-European language family contains 445  current languages, and all of them are thought to have descended from PIE.

Not all languages that have ever been spoken are still commonly used. For example, Latin, which was spoken in the Roman Empire, is now considered a dead language, or a language that has no native speakers.

Human vs. Animal Language

While both animals and humans use systems of communication, the use of complex symbols and open vocal systems is unique to humans.

Learning Objectives

Name differences between human language and animal communication

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Communication in both animals and humans consists of signals. Signals are sounds or gestures that have meaning to those using them.
  • Human communication consists of both signals and symbols. Symbols are sounds, gestures, material objects, or written words that have specific meaning to a group of people.
  • Key differences between human communication and that of other primates are that (1) humans have an open vocal system while other primates have a closed vocal system, and (2) humans have a larger bank of symbols to use in communication.

Key Terms

  • signal: A sound or gesture that has meaning to those using it.
  • lexigram: A symbol that represents a word but is not necessarily indicative of the object referenced by the word; used in studies of communication.
  • symbol: Any object, typically material, that is meant to represent another (usually abstract), even if there is no meaningful relationship.

All animals use some form of communication, although some animal communication is more complex than others. Animal language is any form of communication that shows similarities to human language; however, there are significant differences. Some animals use signs, signals, or sounds to communicate. Lexigrams, or figures and symbols that represent words, are commonly used by chimpanzees and baboons, while animals such as birds and whales use song to communicate among one another. Bees uses complex "dances" to convey information about location. Other animals use odors or body movements to communicate.


Honeybee communication: Bees use body movements to communicate with one another.

Communication in both animals and humans consists of signals. Signals are sounds or gestures that have some meaning to those using them. The meaning is often self-evident based on context: for example, many animals roar, growl, or groan in response to threats of danger; similarly, humans may wave their arms or scream in the event of something dangerous. These signals in these situations are designed to let others in the species know that something is wrong and the animal or human needs help.

Human communication consists of both signals and symbols. Symbols are sounds or gestures that have a specific meaning to a group of people. This meaning could be cultural, group-related, or even related between two specific people. For example, two people may create a "secret" handshake, or a group may develop a passcode that only members are aware of. Symbols, unlike signals, must be taught and learned; they are not instinctual or self-evident.

The dog who knows 1,000 words: Meet Chaser, a dog that "knows" 1,000 words. Chaser's owners claim that he understands language, as evidenced by his ability to understand novel linguistic stimuli (such as the names of unknown toys). Critics claim that Chaser is not understanding language as humans can, but that he has been conditioned or trained to discriminate between certain phoneme sounds.

What about nonhuman primates, who share many similarities with humans? Nonhuman primates communicate in ways that are very similar to those used by humans; however, there are important differences as well. First and foremost, humans use a larger repertoire of symbols, and these symbols are substantially more complex. Second, and more importantly, nonhuman primates (and other animals who communicate with one another) have what is known as a closed vocal system: this means different sounds cannot be combined together to produce new symbols with different meanings. Humans, by contrast, have open vocal systems, which allow for combinations of symbols to create new symbols with a totally new meaning and therefore allows for an infinite number of ideas to be expressed.

Human language is also the only kind that is modality-independent; that is, it can be used across multiple channels. Verbal language is auditory, but other forms of language—writing and sign language (visual), Braille (tactile)—are possible in more complex human language systems.

One of the most famous case studies in the debate over how complex nonhuman-primate language can be is Koko the gorilla. Koko is famous for having learned over a thousand signs of "Gorilla Sign Language," a simple sign language developed to try to teach nonhuman primates complex language. Koko can respond in GSL to about two thousand words of spoken English. However, it is generally accepted that she does not use syntax or grammar, and that her use of language does not exceed that of a young human child.

Kanzi with lexigram: Kanzi is a bonobo, whose trainers claim that not only can he understand human language, but he can manipulate human language to create sentences. Here, Kanzi is in a research session at Great Ape Trust of Iowa using a lexigram with his trainer. There continues to be debate as to whether nonhuman primates, including bonobos, are actually learning and understanding languages or are simply demonstrating the effects of operant conditioning (learning to associate words and signs via reinforcement).

Parrot vs. Child: The Intelligence Test—Extraordinary Animals—Earth: It's Griffin versus the nursery school children in another bird brain test for this Extraordinary Animal. Subscribe to BBC Earth: BBC Earth YouTube Channel: BBC Earth Facebook (ex-UK only) BBC Earth Twitter Visit for all the latest animal news and wildlife videos This is a channel from BBC Worldwide who help fund new BBC programmes.

Human Language Development

Humans, especially children, have an amazing capability to learn language, and several theories exist to explain language development.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate among the major theories of human language acquisition

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • B. F. Skinner believed children learn language through operant conditioning —that children receive "rewards" for using language in a functional manner.
  • Noam Chomsky's theory states that children have the innate biological ability to learn language; however, his theory has not been supported by genetic or neurological studies.
  • Jean Piaget's theory of language development suggests that children use both assimilation and accommodation to learn language.
  • Lev Vygotsky's theory of language development focused on social learning and the zone of proximal development (ZPD).
  • Several areas of the brain must function together in order for a person to develop, utilize, and understand language, including Broca's area, Wernicke's area, the primary auditory cortex, and the angular gyrus.
  • Damage to any of the areas of the brain involved in language development, such as through illness or stroke, can result in problems with language and comprehension.

Key Terms

  • assimilation: The absorption of new ideas into an existing cognitive structure.
  • accommodation: The act of fitting or adapting, or the state of being fitted or adapted; adaptation; adjustment.
  • zone of proximal development: A concept developed by Soviet psychologist and social constructivist Lev Vygotsky that describes the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help.
  • shaping: A method of positive reinforcement of behavior patterns in operant conditioning.

Theories of Language Development

Humans, especially children, have an amazing ability to learn language. Within the first year of life, children will have learned many of the necessary concepts to have functional language, although it will still take years for their capabilities to develop fully. Some people learn two or more languages fluently over their lives (often starting from childhood); these people are bilingual or multilingual. Multiple theories have been proposed to explain the development of language, and related brain structures,  in children.

Skinner: Operant Conditioning

B. F. Skinner believed that children learn language through operant conditioning; in other words, children receive "rewards" for using language in a functional manner. For example, a child learns to say the word "drink" when she is thirsty; she receives something to drink, which reinforces her use of the word for getting a drink, and thus she will continue to do so. This follows the four-term contingency that Skinner believed was the basis of language development—motivating operations, discriminative stimuli , response, and reinforcing stimuli. Skinner also suggested that children learn language through imitation of others, prompting, and shaping.

Chomsky: Language Acquisition Device

Noam Chomsky's work discusses the biological basis for language and claims that children have innate abilities to learn language. Chomsky terms this innate ability the "language acquisition device." He believes children instinctively learn language without any formal instruction. He also believes children have a natural need to use language, and that in the absence of formal language children will develop a system of communication to meet their needs. He has observed that all children make the same type of language errors, regardless of the language they are taught. Chomsky also believes in the existence of a "universal grammar," which posits that there are certain grammatical rules all human languages share. However, his research does not identify areas of the brain or a genetic basis that enables humans' innate ability for language.

Piaget: Assimilation and Accommodation

Jean Piaget's theory of language development suggests that children use both assimilation and accommodation to learn language. Assimilation is the process of changing one's environment to place information into an already-existing schema (or idea). Accommodation is the process of changing one's schema to adapt to the new environment. Piaget believed children need to first develop mentally before language acquisition can occur. According to him, children first create mental structures within the mind (schemas) and from these schemas, language development happens.

Vygotsky: Zone of Proximal Development

Lev Vygotsky's theory of language development focused on social learning and the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD is a level of development obtained when children engage in social interactions with others; it is the distance between a child's potential to learn and the actual learning that takes place. Vygotsky's theory also demonstrated that Piaget underestimated the importance of social interactions in the development of language.

Piaget's and Vygotsky's theories are often compared with each other, and both have been used successfully in the field of education.

Language and Cognition

The following timeline gives an overview of the ages at which children generally acquire language:

  • 4–6 months: Babbling using all sounds.
  • 6–9 months: Babbling becomes more focused—narrowing of sounds.
  • 10–12 months: First words develop.
  • 18–24 months: Children begin using two-word phrases (example: "Me up" or "Get milk").
  • 2–3 years: Children begin using three-word phrases in correct order with inflection.
  • 4–5 years: Children start speaking with nearly complete syntax.
  • 5–7 years: Children begin using and understanding more complex language.
  • 9 years and older: Children understand almost all forms of language.

In language acquisition, there is a hypothesis that a "critical period," or a time when it is optimal to learn a language, exists in children. Part of this hypothesis is that if a child is not exposed to a language in the early years of life, he or she will never have full intuitive command of a first language.

One of the canonical case studies that supporters of the critical-period hypothesis turn to is Genie the "feral child," a young girl born in 1957 who, due to horrible abuse and neglect, never learned a language. She never managed to fully acquire verbal language as a result.

Human Language and the Brain

Several areas of the brain must function together in order for a person to develop, use, and understand language.

Learning Objectives

Describe the role each brain structure involved in language production

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Broca's area is primarily responsible for language production; damage to this area results in productive aphasia.
  • Wernicke's area is primarily responsible for language comprehension; damage to this area results in receptive aphasia.
  • The primary auditory cortex identifies pitch and loudness of sounds.
  • The angular gyrus is responsible for several language processes, including (but not limited to) attention and number processing.

Key Terms

  • aphasia: A loss of the ability to produce or understand language.

Without the brain, there would be no language. The human brain has a few areas that are specific to language processing and production. When these areas are damaged or injured, capabilities for speaking or understanding can be lost, a disorder known as aphasia. These areas must function together in order for a person to develop, use, and understand language.


Language and the brain: The areas of the brain necessary for processing language: Broca's area, Wernicke's area, the primary motor cortex, the posterior middle temporal gyrus, and the middle and posterior superior temporal gyrus.

Broca's Area

Broca's area, located in the frontal lobe of the brain, is linked to speech production, and recent studies have shown that it also plays a significant role in language comprehension. Broca's area works in conjunction with working memory to allow a person to use verbal expression and spoken words. Damage to Broca's area can result in productive aphasia (also known as Broca's aphasia), or an inability to speak. Patients with Broca's can often still understand language, but they cannot speak fluently.

Wernicke's Area

Wernicke's area, located in the cerebral cortex, is the part of the brain involved in understanding written and spoken language. Damage to this area results in receptive aphasia (also called Wernicke's aphasia). This type of aphasia manifests itself as a loss of comprehension, so sometimes while the patient can apparently still speak, their language is nonsensical and incomprehensible.


Language and the brain: The areas of the brain necessary for language. Spoken word, cognition, and written word all are processed in different parts of the brain in different orders.

Auditory Cortex and Angular Gyrus

The primary auditory cortex, located in the temporal lobe and connected to the auditory system, is organized so that it responds to neighboring frequencies in the other cells of the cortex. It is responsible for identifying pitch and loudness of sounds.

The angular gyrus, located in the parietal lobe of the brain, is responsible for several language processes, including number processing, spatial recognition and attention.

Linguistic Relativity

Language and thought tend to influence one another in a dual, cyclical relationship.

Learning Objectives

Characterize the relationship between language and thought in humans

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The theory of linguistic relativity states that the structure of a language influences the way its speakers conceptualize the world.
  • The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis discusses the grammatical structure of a particular language and how it influences its speakers' perceptions of the world.
  • Cognitive -behavioral theory claims that what people think impacts what they say and do.
  • According to behavioral economics, people are more likely to believe an event is true if it is described vividly.

Key Terms

  • cognitive distortion: Exaggerated and irrational thoughts, believed to perpetuate psychological disorders.
  • semantics: The study of the relationship between words and their meanings.

It is easy to wonder which comes first, the thought or the language. Does an individual first think of an idea or did speaking, hearing, or reading about an idea spur a thought? Can thought exist without language? You might as well ask which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Language and thought (or "cognition") tend to interact in a dual and cyclical relationship, a theory known overall as linguistic relativity. What one thinks becomes what one communicates, and what one communicates can lead to new thoughts. There are several different theories that aim to discuss the relationship between cognition and language, and each will be discussed in this chapter.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the grammatical structure of a person's language influences the way he or she perceives the world. The hypothesis has been largely abandoned by linguists as it has found at best very limited experimental support, and it does not hold much merit in psychology. For instance, studies have not shown that speakers of languages lacking a subjunctive mood (such as Chinese) experience difficulty with hypothetical problems. The weaker version of this theory does have some merit, however. For example, different words mean different things in different languages; not every word in every language has a one-to-one exact translation in a different language. Because of these small but important differences, using the wrong word within a particular language (because you believe it to mean something else) can have dire consequences.

The canonical example of studying linguistic relativity is in the area of color naming. Sapir and Whorf, as believers in linguistic relativity, would believe that people whose languages partition the color spectrum along different lines actually perceive colors in a different way. However, recent research has supported the idea that human color perception is governed more by biological and physical rather than linguistic constraints, regardless of how many color words a language has.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

According to the theory that drives cognitive-behavioral therapy, the way a person thinks has a huge impact on what she or he says and does. Founded by Aaron T. Beck, this school of thought discusses the interplay among emotion, behavior, language, and thought. Since internal dialogue is a form of language, the way we speak to ourselves can influence our daily lives. Problems with our internal dialogue, known as cognitive distortions, can lead to negative behaviors or serious emotional problems.

Behavioral Economics

The field of behavioral economics studies the effect of psychological and cognitive factors on individuals' behavior in an economic context. In this field (and others), researchers have shown that the more vividly an event is described, the more likely people will believe it is true. Thus, people will draw different conclusions and make different choices about a situation based on the language used to describe that situation.


Language and thought: What a person thinks (thought) has a direct impact on what that person says (language), and vice versa.

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