Language processing & language instinct


It is like a miracle that almost every human being has the ability to plant an idea to another human being’s mind through some noises and air flows in their mouth. They also have the ability to communicate on a piece of paper or social media using only some symbols.

That’s a gift for all human beings: language. Language is so tightly weaved into our lives that we may not notice its plenty of usage every day. Maybe it is not as that useful as food and shelters, but no one can live a day without it.


It is interesting to think about the scenario that two tribes with people speaking different languages encounter. They have to communicate but they could not understand each other. In order to solve the question, the languages begin to mix and reform in a totally new way. Especially, children reinvent languages. They can naturally combine the mixing language they heard into one, so that a grammar system makes sense. The revolutions of language happened hundreds of times in history, even happening nowadays when Hawaiian sugar plantation buys workers from other countries. No mute tribe has been discovered in history. It raises another question: is language a product of social culture or a human instinct?

Does the language we speak shape the way we think?

There are 7000 kinds of language around the world in total. People in different regions speak specific languages so that they can easily communicate with each other.

You may ask, then, does the language we speak shape the way we think? Does it seem more correct if we follow what a Holy Roman emperor said, “to have a second language is to have a second soul” or as Juliet in Shakespeare’s play said, “What’s in a name? A rose by another name would smell as sweet.”? Although that’s controversy among experts, it seems that most cases tend to weigh more on the statement that different language we speak do influence the way we think. Let’s dive into some interesting languages and see some cases.

The first case is called “Russian blue”. In Russian, people separate the color that we called “blue” into light blue and dark blue, and there is one word for each: “goluboy” for light blue and “siniy” for dark blue. Yet, they don’t have a single word for general blue. Therefore, when an American, for example, sees light and dark blue, he/she subconsciously attributes them to “blue”, a single color, but when the same two colors are shown to a Russian, he/she seems them as two different colors. Therefore, when scientists ask Russian to recall the color, he/she can hit the point on the accurate spectrum.

Besides, in Japanese, there are no words to separate blue and green. Both of them are called “ao”.

As we can see, languages name colors in the spectrum differently that is not able to directly translate them in many cases. It not only affects them on the accurateness of memory, but also makes people have a different sense of feeling they look at the same color.

The second interesting case is the language be used in Kuuk Thaayorre, one of the Australian local tribes. In their language, there is no word for “left” and “right”, instead, they use “east,” “west,” “south,” and “north”. Then, how will the dialogue be like? “Bring me that cup in the south, please.” or “Look, my sister is the one in north-east”. It may be strange to us, but that’s the way people of Kuuk Thaayorre apply in many situations. In addition, when they align cards in order, they always give the order from east to west, same as the direction of the planets orbiting in the universe. That means when they are facing north, they array the cards from right to left; when they are facing east, they arrange them from outside to inside. Compared to them, we are more egocentric to arrange cards always from our left to our right, aren’t we? As we can speculate, those people get a great sense of direction, far more than humans could imagine. We often hold the idea that humans, after evolution, lose the ability to navigate, but actually, it can be trained through language.

In the third case, let’s look at grammar gender, an element of grammar used in many European languages. The significance of grammar gender is that the gender of the adjective and verb in a sentence need to be consistent with the noun that they are describing. Yet, the same object has different words in different languages, result in different grammar genders. For example, “bridge” in German is female, while in Spanish it’s male. Then, the researchers collected the description of bridges from literature and conversations of German and Spanish separately; they also asked the German and the Spanish to draw bridges according to their impressions. The results are surprising—it’s true to say the German describe a bridge as more gently and elegant, while the Spanish as stronger.

Fourth, the focuses of different languages are different. The “focuses” can mean a broad range of things, like the language relies more on passive voice or active voice. Also, facing the same scene of accident, English speakers would say, “the man broke the vase,” while Spanish speakers would say, “the vase is broken.” Indeed, they’re telling the same event, but obviously, the English focus more on the subject of the verb, usually “who did it.” Therefore, differences in language shift the focus we look at the same event. A lot of times, the property can be used in criminal cases. It seems that speakers of the languages who are used to use active voice can remember the criminal more clearly.

There are a lot more cases to argue that the language we speak does shape the way we think.

How did we learn the language?

We can talk as young as we can remember. Many scientists hold the idea that listening and speaking are the real engines of language as they don’t need to be educated, unlike reading and writing. This is because we learn language during our natural window period. The greatest window period for learning language is the first three years after we are born.

Newborns are geniuses of pronunciation learners. By noticing their sucking rate and facial expressions, scientists discovered that newborns can distinguish between similar syllables like “b” and “p”. Scientists repeat “ba” for a few times, and then pronounce a “pa”. Infants suddenly reacted more excited. However, they are not able to distinguish their mother language from others, meaning that they can accept, remember, learn, and imitate any pronunciation as their brains are preparing to grow and shape without any expectations.

After 3 months, infants started to babble – making sounds with no syllables or meanings. They started to try to use their vocal cords and tongues to make sounds they listened in the past few months. There’s a biological reason behind that: in the first three months, their larynxes are attached tightly to the maxilla, allowing them to drink water and breath simultaneously when lying down. But after three months, their larynxes shrink back so that the togue can move more flexibly to make sounds. By 6 months, they stop babbling and can pronounce real syllables.

Until 10 months, infants are no longer universal phoneticians, but developing their understanding of tones and pronunciation only toward that of their mother language. By the year of one, they can understand some words in their mother language and even pronounce.

After another six months, they are able to understand most daily-used words, and their vocal ability will be able to pronounce two-word combinations. Since then, their language output will increase rapidly. Parents can surprisingly find that their children bump out a few more words every day. Initially, there may also be some grammatical mistakes, mainly focus on the irregular words change (such as saying “written” rather than “wrote”), but they can all be quickly corrected without parents’ intervening. Before the age of 3, they can fluently communicate with others.

That’s the greatest window period for learning language, the first three years of life. We would never forget any lexicon of our mother language and speak fluently without consideration. However, we know that we can still speak other languages after 3 years old, only that’s by extra learning by deliberate practice. Researches have also shown that learning a language is still easy before teenage. This conclusion is brought by and can be checked through comparing immigrants who immigrated before and after teenage. People immigrated before teenage can adapt to the new language environment faster than that of after teenage. In addition, their language outputs tend to be more native.

Remember the case mentioned before that when tribes encounter, children reinvent language? Now you may understand the reason behind: children form up the language in the environment with mixing language to make grammar into one acceptable system.

Then, people like to ask a question: what would happen to infants deprived of speech input? Can they speak any languages (maybe the same as his/her biological mother) even they never listened to it after being born? A small number of incidental cases can accomplish the experiment. The results turn out to be, those people stay mute. Therefore, we can give a certain conclusion: for language, it’s more for nurtured rather than natural.

How do languages work? Why grammar? How our minds organize sentences?

The way we speak is interesting. The minds or ideas bring the brain a lexicon of words or concepts. Then our brains combine and convey them, forming a complete sentence. In another word, we use a code to translate between orders of words and combinations of thoughts. That code, or set of rules, is called a generative grammar. Now, you may ask questions like how do languages work; why grammar; how our minds organize sentences. Scientists discovered a specific theory for word chain device called “X-bar theory”.

[the examples shown below are only for some languages like English but not for all, but the theories are common in use!]

First, they believe that sentences are divided into phrases, and phrases are divided into words in our minds. Phrases order in a specific consequence to form a sentence that everyone has been learnt by.

The diagram shows how a phrase is organized. A phrase must have a head. The property of the head determines that of the phrase. For example, if the head is a noun, the phrase is a noun phrase; if the head is a verb, the phrase is a verb phrase, like this:

[N stands for noun; NP stands for noun phrase; N’ belongs to a branch of NP but upper than N and complement. Same as V.]

Then, every phrase can omit the specifier or complement of both, but not allowed to be omitted for its head. A phrase can even have only a head, like:

There are also phrases with complements but without specifier:

When we form those different phrases together within one and only one predicate verb, it forms up a complete sentence:

Language organs / grammar genes?

Our brains process language in certain areas. You may know that language is controlled mostly by the left hemisphere of our brains. Further speaking, as shown, it mainly refers to Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area.

This picture shows where the language-controlling areas are located. Between Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, there’s a band of fibers that can convey messages. The area right beneath the band of fibers is for the auditory process. We hear others speaking in the area and then understand them through the language process. The deep brain grooves connected to the fibers are the process of body movement. Why is this area related to the language areas? Researches showed that when we hear words like “dance” or “run”, this area would light up. Maybe that’s the consequence of mirror neurons.

I would like to introduce each of the areas by combining them with Aphasia. It is a disorder that results from damage to areas of the brain that produce and process language. A person with aphasia can have trouble speaking, reading, writing, and understanding language. Yet, language aphasia doesn’t mean that the patient has any problem with IQ.

When the Broca’s area is damaged, Broca’s aphasia happens. People would speak out sentences lack of grammar. Therefore, it is also called “non-fluent aphasia”. However, scientists couldn’t just give out the conclusion that the Broca’s area controls the grammar, since Broca’s aphasia happens not only when the Broca’s area is damaged but also when the surrounding areas and underlying white matter get compromised

When the Wernicke’s area is damaged, Wernicke’s aphasia happens. People can talk fluently under this situation, so it’s also called “fluent aphasia”, but their sentences make no sense. Facing a question, they couldn’t respond correctly. Their speech has no logic among sentences and is filled with neologisms. They also have difficulty naming objects.

There is also a kind of aphasia that cannot repeat what others said. It is caused by the damage of the connection between Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, that brand of fibers.

Actually, there are 8 kinds of aphasia in total. We can separate them by asking 3 questions: is the speech fluent, can they comprehend spoken massages, and can they repeat the words they heard. All three questions have positive and negative answers, so after different pairing, the total possibility is the cubic of two.

According to statistics, there are 1,000,000 people in the US affecting aphasia, accumulating 80,000 people per year as newly affected. One of the third stroker survivors suffering it. It’s not a small number if we consider every person suffering aphasia facing it as a disaster. They cannot communicate successfully with other people. What a disastrous psychological pressure for them if you still remember the importance of language in our life mentioned in the beginning. Depression, therefore, is one of the complications of aphasia since none of the patients can be understood.

The main cause of aphasia is brain injury, which damages the language areas. People affected by stroke are likely to suffer from aphasia. In addition, brain degeneration can also consider as a factor of aphasia. It can be the complication of Alzheimer’s.

Aphasia can be treated. There are several kinds of treatments that can be used today. Primarily, the brain could recover itself after injury, just like any other organs in our bodies, new tissues can be formed up near the injured area. This is not only the easiest way of treating aphasia, but also the precondition of other therapies.

The most specific therapy is virtual speech therapy. There are software operating like games that teach patients how the language is organized, and train them with repetition, helping the patients to generate speeches correctly according to their symptoms. The software provides patients with the flexibility and convenience of getting therapy in their homes through a computer.

They can also attend clubs to help them get better, increasing interaction and communication with others may help them learn the language.



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