Nav: Home

How does language emerge?

December 03, 2019

How the languages of the world emerged is largely a mystery. Considering that it might have taken millennia, it is intriguing to see how deaf people can create novel sign languages spontaneously. Observations have shown that when deaf strangers are brought together in a community, they come up with their own sign language in a considerably short amount of time. The most famous example of this is Nicaraguan Sign Language, which emerged in the 1980s. Interestingly, children played an important role in the development of these novel languages. However, how exactly this happened has not been documented, as Manuel Bohn describes: "We know relatively little about how social interaction becomes language. This is where our new study comes in."

In a series of studies, researchers at the Leipzig Research Centre for Early Childhood Development and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology attempted to recreate exactly this process. The idea had been around for quite some time, says Gregor Kachel. But there was a problem: how to make children communicate with each other without them reverting to talking to each other? The solution came up in Skype conversations between the two researchers from Germany and their colleague Michael Tomasello in the US. In the study, children were invited to stay in two different rooms and a Skype connection was established between them. After a brief familiarization with the set-up, the researchers sneakily turned off the sound and watched as the children found new ways of communicating that go beyond spoken language.

The children's task was to describe an image with different motifs in a coordination game. With concrete things - like a hammer or a fork - children quickly found a solution by imitating the corresponding action (e.g. eating) in a gesture. But the researchers repeatedly challenged the children with new, more abstract pictures. For example, they introduced a white sheet of paper as a picture. The depicted "nothing" is difficult to imitate. Kachel describes how two children nevertheless mastered this task: "The sender first tried all sorts of different gestures, but her partner let her know that she did not know what was meant. Suddenly our sender pulled her T-shirt to the side and pointed to a white dot on her coloured T-shirt. The two had a real breakthrough: of course! White! Like the white paper! Later, when the roles were switched, the recipient didn't have a white spot on her T-shirt, but she nevertheless took the same approach: she pulled her T-shirt to the side and pointed to it. Immediately her partner knew what to do." Within a very short time, the two had established a sign for an abstract concept. In the course of the study, the images to be depicted became more and more complex, which was also reflected in the gestures that the children produced. In order to communicate, for example, an interaction between two animals, children invented separate gestures for actors and actions and began to combine them - thus creating a kind of small local grammar.

How does a language emerge? Based on the present study, the following steps appear plausible: first, people create reference to actions and objects via signs that resemble things. The prerequisite for this is a common ground of experience between interaction partners. Partners also coordinate by imitating each other such that they use the same signs for the same things. The signs thus gain interpersonal and eventually conventional meaning. Over time, the relationships between the signs and things become more abstract and the meaning of the individual signs more specific. Grammatical structures are gradually introduced when there is a need to communicate more complex facts. However, the most remarkable aspect of the current studies is that these processes can be observed under controlled circumstances and within 30 minutes.

The studies demonstrate that communication cannot be reduced to words alone. When there is no way to use conventional spoken language, people find other ways to get their message across. This phenomenon forms the basis for the development of new languages. The study by Manuel Bohn, Gregor Kachel and Michael Tomasello shows what the first steps in the development of a new language could look like. According to Bohn, however, numerous new questions arise at this point: "It would be very interesting to see how the newly invented communication systems change over time, for example when they are passed on to new 'generations' of users. There is evidence that language becomes more systematic when passed on."
-end-


Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Related Language Articles:

Human language most likely evolved gradually
One of the most controversial hypotheses for the origin of human language faculty is the evolutionary conjecture that language arose instantaneously in humans through a single gene mutation.
'She' goes missing from presidential language
MIT researchers have found that although a significant percentage of the American public believed the winner of the November 2016 presidential election would be a woman, people rarely used the pronoun 'she' when referring to the next president before the election.
How does language emerge?
How did the almost 6000 languages of the world come into being?
New research quantifies how much speakers' first language affects learning a new language
Linguistic research suggests that accents are strongly shaped by the speaker's first language they learned growing up.
Why the language-ready brain is so complex
In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks.
Do as i say: Translating language into movement
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a computer model that can translate text describing physical movements directly into simple computer-generated animations, a first step toward someday generating movies directly from scripts.
Learning language
When it comes to learning a language, the left side of the brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.
Learning a second alphabet for a first language
A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro.
Sign language reveals the hidden logical structure, and limitations, of spoken language
Sign languages can help reveal hidden aspects of the logical structure of spoken language, but they also highlight its limitations because speech lacks the rich iconic resources that sign language uses on top of its sophisticated grammar.
Lying in a foreign language is easier
It is not easy to tell when someone is lying.
More Language News and Language Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Clint Smith
The killing of George Floyd by a police officer has sparked massive protests nationwide. This hour, writer and scholar Clint Smith reflects on this moment, through conversation, letters, and poetry.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.