A species-specific communicative ability, restricted to humans, which involves the use of sounds, grammar, and vocabulary, according to a system of rules. Though other animals can communicate vocally and by gesture, they are restricted to a particular set of messages, genetically given, which cannot be creatively varied. 2 An individual manifestation of 1, found within a particular community.
Language is the system of speech used by humans as a means of communication, which is a universal characteristic of the human species. Also, artificial systems for specifying computer processing and data, e.g. programming or markup languages. This article deals with natural, human languages. Language is most often defined as an organized system of speech that allows humans to communicate with each other. The use of language as a means of communication is so ancient that its origins are not known. The earliest forms of language may have evolved from the imitation of sounds in nature, instinctive cries or verbal sounds that accompanied body movements.
Some researchers believe that humans have been using language for only 40,000 years of the roughly 100,000 years our species (Homo sapiens) has existed. Others believe that language was formed and developed along with the development of the species and was aided by the acquired use of tools. They also believe that the use of language was reinforced and refined as our early ancestors formed cooperative relationships. Most of the questions about the origin of human language may never be fully answered.
Another question facing researchers is whether language had a single origin (monogenesis) and then spread to other populations or whether it emerged in several populations independently (polygenesis). Regardless of whether it had a single point of origin or many, human language has spread and diversified over many thousands of years until we now have between 3,000 and 8,000 languages in use today. The actual number depends on how the difference between a language and a dialect (a form of language that differs in pronunciation, vocabulary or grammar from other forms of the same language) is defined.
When people hear a language that they do not speak, it may seem that the unknown language is completely different than their own. It may be impossible to imagine any similarities between the foreign language and the native one. While language is a cultural system, meaning individual languages have differing classifications for objects and ideas, all languages share common features. In fact, despite the thousands of different languages in use, most linguists (specialists in the study of languages) are convinced that all are basically the same in structure and function.
This concept of similarity is supported when one considers that all languages have types of words that correspond to nouns and verbs (using English as a base example,) they all have groupings of words that form what English defines as sentences and they all have ways to signal whether the concept communicated is a question, a command or a statement.
Another characteristic of language that reveals universal similarity in our species is the acquisition or learning of language by children. All children who have the physical and psychological capability to learn language can become proficient in their native language by the time they are four or five years old - even if they are not specifically taught the language. This ability to acquire language, seemingly without effort, begins to taper off as children reach puberty. These acquisition patterns are identical in all humans, regardless of cultural, physical or racial differences.
When languages are analyzed, they are usually grouped into families and branches. The most studied family of languages is the Indo-European, which includes, as just some of its branches, the Albanian, Armenian, Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Iranian and Slavic languages. English and Swedish are two examples of languages from the Germanic branch; Persian and Kurdish are examples of the Iranian branch. Other large language families include the Sino-Tibetan (which includes the Chinese language,) the Hamitic and the Semitic.
Languages are grouped into families based on the words the languages have in common - something that naturally occurs when languages descend from a common, historical parent. Differing languages within the family form branches and within the branch language are even more variations. These are the dialects which are developed and spoken by separate regions or economically or culturally diverse groups.
Some linguists believe there are nearly 6,500 spoken languages in current use. It is estimated that 2,000 of the languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers and some are in danger of dying out completely. The most frequently spoken languages today are Chinese, English, Hindustani, Russian, Spanish, German, Japanese and French. Although it falls behind Chinese in the order of most spoken, English is considered as being the closest to an international language. It is commonly used for commerce and public affairs in countries with several languages and the advent of the Internet has strengthened its hold on international expression.
As long as a language is being used, it continues to change. Sounds, forms and meanings of language evolve, originate or drop out of use. Language normally evolves from a complex, rigid form into a more simple, flexible model. Latin, which forms the basis of many modern languages, is very structurally complex. French is less complex, and English is simpler still. In fact, English is considered to be structurally one of the simplest languages.
The concept of 'a language' is not always easy to define, since it is not solely a linguistic matter. Even the apparently common-sense requirement that speakers of 'the same' language should be able to understand one another (that their dialects should be mutually intelligible) does not always obtain.
In most of W Europe, the situation is straightforward, because language boundaries tend to coincide with the boundaries of nation-states, and the languages of France, Germany, Italy, etc are not mutually intelligible. But in Scandinavia, political autonomy in Norway and Sweden has led to Norwegian and Swedish being called separate 'languages', despite the fact that they are largely mutually intelligible.
In China, the opposite situation obtains: varieties which occur are called 'dialects' of the Chinese language, despite the fact that several are not mutually intelligible. This comes about because they all use the same writing system, which is seen as a unifying factor. The designation of 'language' status is therefore dependent on a wide variety of social, linguistic, and political considerations, and as a result, estimates of the number of living languages in the world (usually ranging between 4000 and 6000) are inevitably uncertain, and should be accepted with caution.
One of the standard beliefs about learning a language is that it takes place in a "critical period" which begins when the child is mature enough to learn speech, but not past that period. Most of this theory was built around the "Wild Boy of Aveyron" who was found in the forests of southern France in 1797. The boy was then aged about 12, and never mastered speech, despite intensive efforts by his teacher, Jean-Marc Itard.
Most "critical period" theories can be shown to have simple reasons to explain each end of the range. When a chicken or duckling or gosling is following a moving object and imprinting upon it, this period begins when the bird can walk and follow. The critical period ends when the bird develops a sense of fear of strange objects, which is probably the reason why the end of the critical period can be extended by dosing young birds with tranquillisers.
There seems to be no good reason why the Aveyron boy (or any other child) should have passed the end of the critical period at this age, but standard wisdom has always been that the peak age for learning verbal communication is at about age six, and drops off after that age. A case reported in early 1997 indicates that the assumption may have been wrong.
"Alex" was born with brain damage, and remained mute to the age of nine, and then underwent a period of rapid language acquisition. He continued to improve, and at the time of the report, he was aged fifteen, and speaking with the skills of a ten-year-old. "Alex" had Sturge-Weber syndrome, causing severe seizures, and at the age of eight, he had his left hemisphere (the normal location of the speech centres) removed.
For now, the critical period hypothesis has merely been pushed up, and researchers have suggested that the end of the critical period may be caused by the hormones of puberty reducing the flexibility of the speech areas.