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Reading Passage: Language - Nature's Gift

1 In the field of linguistics there is still much argument over the definition of language. But most would agree on the following definition given by linguist Barry Schein: “Language is a systematic means of communicating ideas and feelings by the use of conventional symbols.” In this definition the word systematic refers to the complicated grammatical structure people use in the language, while the term “conventional symbols” refers to the spoken or signed vocabulary of a language. Language is a social tool; it can not exist outside a community of speakers who understand its rules.
2 Language is a unique and complicated skill; one that many scientists argue separates people from animals. Today there is some debate over whether gorillas, who can be taught to sign, have language. Though gorillas can definitely learn to comprehend basic spoken English, to acquire signing vocabularies of up to a thousand words, and create new signs when needed, they seem to lack the capacity to grasp the higher levels of human grammar. An average adult human for example masters 50 to 100 times the number of vocabulary words available to a gorilla without being specifically trained or instructed. A normal child will learn to use language with competence no matter where he is born in the world, and some even go on to conquer several languages. This is not surprising because language ability is considered by some to be a human instinct, for it has its roots in specific areas of the human brain.

3 In fact, there are some centers in your brain that are responsible for specific grammatical features. Two of the most important areas for language processing in the brain are the Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas. In the picture shown above, Wernicke’s area is being highlighted when you are generating verbs and Broca’s area is located just behind the area highlighted when you are seeing words. When these parts of the brain are either damaged by seizure or are underdeveloped specific grammatical functions quit working. The result is a language disability classified as one of many types of aphasia. In Broca’s aphasia, the individual may retain the usage of nouns and verbs but loses all forms of pronouns, articles, and conjunctions. The words they lose are called function words; they belong to a fixed vocabulary that is learned early on and consist of words that have more grammatical functions than specific meanings. For example, the words “the” and “a” do not have any particular meaning on their own. It is only in the context of a sentence that they are useful. In Wernicke’s aphasia, comprehension is a problem. The individual can speak fluidly but is unable to form meaningful sentences. The following example from David Carroll, Psychology of Language, shows the speech pattern of someone afflicted by this disease: “Well this is .... mother is away here working her work out o'here to get her better, but when she's looking, the two boys looking in other part. One their small tile into her time here. She's working another time because she's getting, too.” The words seem to make sense, but the sentence does not communicate a clear idea.

image courtesy of San Diego State University

4 Linguists today pay a lot of attention to how children acquire language. What they found was astonishing. A child whether he is learning English, Chinese, or Swahili will go through the same universal process. Human languages, no matter how different, share certain grammatical properties. Languages have basic properties that are universal. For example, the vocabulary of every language is divided into syntactic classes such as nouns, processes, links, modifiers, and quantifiers. Furthermore, all languages distinguish between vowels and consonants. At first, children can recognize all of the sounds the human mouth is capable of producing, but slowly they learn to pay attention to only those specific to their language. This is why Japanese speakers have trouble differentiating between L and R. Babies begin to repeat these sounds in what is called the babbling phase. Next, in the holophrastic or one word phase, babies begin to use one word sentences to get what they want. Often these words are simple words corresponding to bodily needs like eat, no, hungry, or sleepy. Babies then go through a period of two and then three words until finally, at the age of about five, they have pretty much mastered the language. The time frame for learning a language is identical for every human on the planet. But children seem to lose the ability to learn a language fluently after the age of 12. This seems to indicate that language is an instinct. Much like ducks right after they hatch have a few moments where their mother’s image is imprinted on their brains so that they know to follow her, so too does human language depend on a critical period of impressions.

5 This concept was evidenced by the experiences of a young girl named Genie, who, at a mere 20 months of age, was locked up in a closet and completely isolated from all human contact for the next eleven and a half years of her life. She never came into contact with language and when she was finally released she was never fully able to learn language. She had missed the critical period of development. In other cases, twins or triplets have developed their own language with their siblings independent of their parents, which also seem to show that children have an instinctual drive towards creating and learning language.
6 No matter what language we learn, people are born with something special: an ability and talent for communicating with one another that far exceeds any member of the animal kingdom. It is a gift that each of us is born with that rests deep in our brains. Parts of us may even be pre-programmed to learn certain grammatical traits that exist throughout all languages. For something as complex as language, it sure comes easy to people.

General Questions

There are about 700,000 words in the English language. If an average adult without a college education (45 years old) knows about 50,000 words and an average college sophomore(20 years old) knows 200,000 how many more words per a year does the college student learn?

T Hales

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