First words. They are special. Regardless of the language you speak or the sounds that you are able to make, first words can be many different things. For parents, they can be the realization of a dream, or the start of a new chapter for the next great pioneer, the next great scientist, the next big musician or simply another human life.
Whether spoken or signed, first words are important markers in the life of a human being. This is because language is maybe the one thing that separates us from every other organism on this planet. Sure, other animals communicate, some rather sophisticatedly, but none are as capable of the range of emotions, thoughts and feelings that we humans can convey. Using about 100 different muscles, we make strange noises or hand signals that come together in just the right way to convey a thought, a feeling, an expression. From our ancestors letting each other know where food was to creating a YouTube channel to explore all our existential thoughts, language has made quite the journey with us.
Linguists hypothesize that starting in its most primitive form, protolanguage, communication evolved through natural selection. And it makes sense when you think about it. The group of animals who are able to communicate with some level of sophistication and precision would always be better off than their non-linguistic counterparts.
This initial form of communication, was basic and, therefore, potentially ambiguous and error-prone. So from sounds and symbols, our ancestors developed grammar which allowed for a more systematic and, therefore, less error-prone method of communication. And so, around 50,000 to 150,000 years ago, language, as we know it, was born. Today, there are around 7,000 different languages spoken around the globe. However, most of these are either dialects or modifications from languages that already exist. At the core of it, there are only around 120 language isolates, meaning ones that have no distinctive relation with any of the others.
Euskara, spoken in Basque Country in northern Spain, for example, is one of the most widely spoken language isolates with nearly 750,000 speakers. Basque Country is sandwiched between Northern Spain and France. Yet, Euksara has no relation to either Spanish or French, or any other language in existence. The most important part of that sentence being “in existence”. For all we know, every single human language could have evolved from one and then diverged as we traveled and settled across the globe. As some of them go extinct, we lose their roots, so isolates are born. This is not a far-fetched assumption when you consider that we are losing around one language per week across the planet. And this sad reality is a result of globalization.
While globalization has been good for the advancement of humanity, it has created an over-emphasis on learning English and other dominant languages. The internet, for example, only operates with about 5% of the world’s languages. The vast majority of trade is conducted in English, and most people are forced to speak it if they want to be a part of this new global village. The result is that less and less people are inclined to use their native tongues and slowly, we’re losing these languages. Practically speaking, using the same language is more efficient. You do want air traffic controllers to understand each other. From a cultural standpoint, however, this means we are erasing parts of our history and, subsequently, parts of the human experience, with each language that goes extinct.
You see, language is not just a tool for communication. Embedded in these words are ways various people think about different things. It’s how cultures express their worldview. For example, time in English is described using distance. A long period or a short nap. In comparison, time in Spanish is measured using volume, as in a large time or a small nap. Spanish speakers are also more likely to use reflexive markers to explain how something was broken in the passive voice, as opposed to English speakers who would say “he breaks things” or “she breaks things”. This act of attributing a subject also affects how quickly English speakers lay blame or credit compared to Spanish ones. While this is not all-encompassing, these small differences affect the manner in which people think. And when these languages go extinct, we close out windows into these insights and thought processes and we lose these unique experiences and perspectives.
It is no wonder, then, that learning a different language can alter your personality, for better or for worse. People can very much feel like they lose their “true” selves by speaking in a different tongue. Polyglot YouTuber, Nathaniel Drew, recently made a video about how he acts differently when he’s speaking different languages and living in various parts of the world. In English, he’s more politically correct. On the other hand, when speaking French or Italian, he’s more stern and direct because the former would get him labeled as fake in France or Italy. It’s these subtleties in the way people interact and communicate that makes it rather sad that we’re losing so many languages and the intricate beauty hidden in them.
All hope is not lost, though. After the start of the pandemic in 2020, the popular language learning app Duolingo reported a 150% spike in registrations in the U.S. alone over its 2019 numbers. This upward trend followed through into 2021, leading to an increase in its monthly active users. People in the millions were signing up to learn Spanish, French, Korean, Japanese, you name it. While most people are not going to be learning language isolates anytime soon, the widespread desire to become bilingual is a very optimistic one. For one, just an attempt to step out of our comfort zone is a challenge many never take. Besides, if you think carefully, monolinguals, which is the vast majority of us, never really “learn” our native language. We absorb it through our family and community.
In that sense, while most everybody uses a language, many never actually learn one. But why should you bother? Why should you go through the very hard work of learning a foreign language anyway? Well, there are many reasons. The one that has been getting by far the most attention lately is research that shows that bilinguals experience a delay in the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Studies conducted with bilinguals and monolinguals suggest that, all else being equal, bilinguals tend to see a delay in the onset of these diseases by four to five years. While that is not a complete prevention or a cure, and half a decade may not seem like a lot, it’s quite impressive. Especially when you consider that even with the best medication we currently have, we've only been able to ward off these diseases by about a year.
Scientists predict that this difference is down to the fact that the brains of monolinguals and bilinguals are physically different. It may be down to the deliberate effort required by a bilingual speaker to switch between two languages. This extra effort in communication may also be correlated to other interesting outcomes. Bilinguals speaking in their non-native tongue, for example, tend to exhibit more control over their emotions and are less likely to utilize their intuition — a faster, but more error-prone method— when making judgments.
Language is also tremendously important because of what it implies about us. In the past, philosophers and linguists believed that we were all born with a blank slate and learn the ability to use language as we grow older. That theory was widely accepted until Noam Chomsky came around to pose his own theory about linguistics. Largely considered to be his seminal work, Chomsky suggested that we are not born with a blank slate, but rather are hardwired to understand and use language. This assumption has tremendous implications not just in the field of linguistics but also in artificial intelligence. Firstly, for linguistics, it means there must be something common between all languages since they are being learned by the same pattern recognition ingrained in us all, whether we receive formal instruction or not. And for artificial intelligence, this suggests there could be an ultimate algorithm that is able to understand the information-sharing patterns of all humans regardless of where they are from and what language they are using.
There is already a very interesting experiment that aims to explain Chomsky’s theory. Look at these two shapes. Now guess which of them is called “bouba” and which of them is called “kiki”. Scientists showed pictures of both of these to people who spoke different languages around the world, from American undergrad students all the way to Tamil speakers in India. If you guessed that the object with pointy ends is kiki while the much softer and rounder shape is bouba, well, so did the majority who took part in the experiment. This result implies that there might indeed be something very innate in how we map sounds to words and feelings: language, in other words.
This begs the question: If the ability to learn language is in our biological makeup, shouldn’t that mean if a baby is completely isolated for the first few years of their life, should they not be able to pick up language once introduced to it? While these experiments will hopefully never be conducted by scientists for obvious ethical reasons, the closest situations that we have had are examples where parents made no effort to teach language to their children and the kids still end up learning it automatically. That is, of course, with the exception of one Genie Wiley.
Genie is one of the most tragic cases of child abandonment you will ever see. She spent her entire childhood tied to a chair in truly torturous circumstances. Nobody in her family spoke with her, but when they did it, it was usually an angry shout or a growl like you would to a dog. After she was rescued, both her parents were charged with abuse, and Genie’s rehabilitation was overseen by a number of scientists and doctors. titled the Genie team. Foremost amongst them were linguists who focused on Genie's language abilities that had been left underdeveloped. At the start of the study, Genie would either stay in complete silence or sometimes mouth the word: “sorry”. While Genie demonstrated rapid progression during certain stages of her rehabilitation, her progress soon halted and she was noticeably far behind a person of her age in terms of vocabulary, grammar and comprehension. Despite being provided with the environment to learn English during her rehab, Genie was unable to do so. This would weaken Chomsky’s argument and it might be the evidence we need to prove that language is indeed learned. Not just that, but it would also substantiate the fact that there is a window and a point after which learning your first language might not be possible anymore.
Today, we stand at a far cry from years past when people thought that bilingualism was a bad thing and led to poorer cognitive outcomes. The reason for such a belief was a biased study that said that if you focus your limited cognitive resources in mastering two tongues instead of one, you are likely to be a master of neither. This assumption is actually true, but only in children until the age of five. Under this age, children learning more languages tend to have a weaker vocabulary in each language than those who are learning just one. However, after the age of five, this gap slowly ceases to exist.
Language. It has been a source for confusion, misunderstanding, and turmoil. A source of pride. A reason for war and one for peace too. You say meaningful words in the wrong order and they mean nothing. You say meaningless words in the right order and they still mean nothing. Like Noam Chomsky said: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
But you use specific words in a certain way, and feelings can be shared, thoughts can be expressed, ideas can be explained. Colorful bright ideas expressed correctly can very well make dreams come alive. So go on. Learn a language or two. Say or sign things. String some words together. Who knows? That might just be what makes us human, after all.