There are two great mysteries involving language. The first is how language was ever able to originate. The mystery is highlighted by a 2014 scientific paper by leading linguists, which states, “The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever.”
The Mystery of How Language Originated
Explaining the origin of language involves the same type of severe difficulties involved in explaining the origin of vision and the origin of flying. In all three of these cases there is the difficulty in explaining the origin of functionality which requires many different parts and a high degree of complexity and coordination before any survival value reward can be produced. In the case of vision, before any survival value reward can be produced, there needs to be a highly complex setup consisting of a preliminary eye, extremely complex biochemistry, at least one highly specialized protein for capturing light, an optic nerve, and very substantial brain changes needed to meaningfully process visual input. In the case of flying, before any survival value reward can be produced, there needs to be a highly complex setup consisting of wings (or a wing-like appendage), and very substantial brain changes needed for either flying or gliding to occur. In the case of language, before any survival value reward can be produced, there needs to be a highly complex setup consisting of changes in the vicinity of the mouth, changes in the brain needed to articulate speech, and changes in the brain needed to process speech spoken by others.
We cannot explain the reaching of any of these initial functional thresholds by evoking Darwin's idea of natural selection or survival of the fittest, because there would be no survival benefit until these complex functional thresholds were achieved, each involving a complex arrangement of parts incredibly unlikely to occur by chance. For example, natural selection would presumably not have rewarded some preliminary version of language functionality consisting only of no language-related brain changes, and merely a larynx and pharynx which would have allowed people to only speak as crudely as if they had their mouths filled with rocks.
In the case of the origin of language, there are no less than 4 different things that need to be explained:
- How could changes in the vicinity of the mouth have occurred, in order to enable human speech, presumably before such changes were rewarded by offering an increased survival value?
- How could changes in the brain have occurred, in order to enable meaningful articulation of speech, presumably before such changes were rewarded by offering an increased survival value?
- How could changes in the brain have occurred, in order to enable meaningful interpretation of speech spoken by others, presumably before such changes were rewarded by offering an increased survival value?
- How could any language have come into existence, when it seems that the only way to establish a language (including verbs, grammar rules, adjectives and adverbs) would be if some language already existed?
The difficulty of explaining the origin of language is only one of the two great mysteries involving language. A separate difficulty is: how is that very young children are able to learn how to speak a language so quickly?
The Mystery of How Small Children Acquire Language
If you are an adult studying a new language, you are instructed in the rules of grammar used by that language. But a small child receives no such instruction, because it is impossible to explain such rules to someone who doesn't already know a language. Instead, a small child seems to pick up language purely by listening to people speak. Consider what a wonder that is. Imagine if you were placed in a remote village in Russia, where no one spoke English, and you had to pick up Russian purely by hearing other people speak it. This seems like an impossible task.
It has been extensively argued by leading linguists such as Noam Chomsky that the average young child is not exposed to enough examples for the child to be able to generalize rules of language. This is known as the “poverty of stimulus” argument. The acquisition of a language by very small children seems all the more amazing when we consider that many children raised in bilingual households (such as my two daughters) managed to pick up two different languages before even starting public school, without any formal instruction.
To explain the wonder of a small child's language acquisition, some have advanced the idea of a genetically-based language instinct. The idea was popularized by psychologist Steven Pinker in his book The Language Instinct. The idea is that you have some genes that make it easy for you to learn language and grammar.
The idea seems to make no sense, because genes are just recipes for making proteins. A gene can only specify a protein that will be used as a building ingredient for the human body. It seems that there is no way for a gene to specify any specific mental ability. Imagining a gene for language understanding seems to be another example of the widespread fallacy of attributing abilities to genes that are beyond their structural limitations.
Pinker's claim of a language instinct has been rebutted by Vyvyan Evans, who is actually a professor of linguistics, which Pinker is not. Evans is the author of the book The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct. Evans states his views in this essay and this essay.
Evans states this:
For a Universal Grammar to be hard-wired into the micro-circuitry of the human brain, it would need to be passed on via the genes. But recent research in neurobiology suggests that human DNA just doesn’t have anything like the coding power needed to do this. Our genome has a highly restricted information capacity. A significant amount of our genetic code is taken up with building a nervous system, even before it gets started on anything else. To write something as detailed and specific as knowledge of a putative Universal Grammar inside a human infant’s brain would use up huge informational resources – resources that our DNA just can’t spare. So the basic premise of the language instinct – that such a thing could be transmitted genetically – seems doubtful.
This argument is based on capacity, but a similar but better argument would be based on expressive capability. The only thing you can state in DNA or genes are groups of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. This is an extremely narrow and special-purpose type of expressive capability, as narrow as some minimalist language capable of expressing only sandwich ingredients. Neither genes nor DNA have any broad or general expressive capability of the type that would be needed to state grammatical rules.
When I go to the index of The Language Instinct and look up “genes and language,” I find only 16 pages in his 500-page book are trying to present evidence of a genetic link. None of these pages present good evidence that genes give us any language ability. The most relevant evidence presented is a claim that something called Specific Language Impairment “runs in families.” But Evans tells us it “turned out that SLI is really just an inability to process fine auditory details,” undermining Pinker's insinuations that SLI is some evidence of a gene-grammar link. Seeing how meager is the evidence Pinker presents to back up his thesis, we may wonder whether the popularity of his The Language Instinct book mainly stems from his skill as a writer rather than the evidence he has presented.
No grammar gene has been found, leaving the idea of a genetically-based language instinct on poor empirical ground. On page 12 of the postscript of a paperback version of The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker says, “Though no single gene specific to grammar has been found (and perhaps none ever will), it is increasingly clear that sets of genes will be tied, with varying degrees of specificity and overlap with other functions, to aspects of language ability.” The latter part of the statement is so hedged and qualified that it is basically meaningless. The important part is the first part of the statement, the admission that no grammar gene has been found, which undermines the whole thesis of The Language Instinct.
If you do a Google search for “language gene,” you will find various press reports referring to the FOXP2 gene as a “language gene.” But a book on child language acquisition says this about calling FOXP2 a language gene:
Subsequent research has robustly debunked this claim. The gene (FOXP2) is actually a gene that regulates the behavior of many other genes. It has an effect on the development of many organs, including the lung and the gut, not just those important for language...
Similarly, the National Geographic blog here refers to the FOXP2 gene as “the 'language gene' that's not really a language gene.”
If the idea of a gene-based language ability is not convincing, in what other ways might we explain the rapid acquisition of language by small children? We may need to go far out of the box, and consider offbeat explanations.
Paranormal Hypothesis #1: ESP-Aided Acquisition of Language
Here is an interesting hypothesis. It could be that small children acquire language partially through extrasensory perception (ESP). Humans might be born with an ESP capability that diminishes after early childhood. When you were a child, and your mother or father spoke to you, you might have been able to telepathically know what they were thinking. This may have made it relatively easy for you to learn your first language.
There is strong experimental support for extrasensory perception in adult humans, as discussed here, here, here, here, and here. Although almost all testing has been done with adults, there is some empirical support for the idea of extrasensory perception in children. Besides this compelling evidence produced in the USA, an entry in the Psi Encyclopedia on psychic research in China tells us this:
Using more advanced training methods, Dr Chuang Chung in Taiwan and Professor Tai-Chun Yang in Sichuan with Lady Tang Kai-Ting have further improved the ability of blind children to ‘see and read’ through skin contact. Some children can now ‘skin read’ the colour, number and figure (animal shapes) on separate cards in some cases at up to 45 cards per minute, often with 100% accuracy.
The idea of ESP between family members seems very plausible to me partially because of my own personal experiences. I once played a guessing game with my sister. One person would think of an item around our house, and the other person would try to guess it, after asking a few questions that must be answered “yes” or “no.” As soon as there was a “no” answer, a round was considered a failure. There were at least eight consecutive successful rounds, in which the item was correctly guessed, with the guess preceded by only “yes” answers to the “yes” or “no” questions. My sister and I alternated as the guessers, so it couldn't have been a case of her simply pulling my leg by always answering “Yes.” The odds of getting eight successful rounds in such a game is about 1 in 2 to the twenty-fourth power, or 1 in 16,777,216. I have had equally striking experiences suggesting extrasensory perception between me and my daughters.
Paranormal Hypothesis #2: Past Lives Helping Small Children to Acquire Language
Here is a different hypothesis to explain the wonder of a small child's language acquisition: it may be relatively easy for a child to pick up language because the child may have reincarnated, and may be remembering language he or she used in a previous life.
University of Virginia researchers such as Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker have done extensive research on alleged reincarnation cases involving children. Many cases have been compiled in which young children seem to report details of the life of someone who previously died, details they could not have known through normal means. When a child reports these accounts that are called “past life memories,” the alleged memories will only persist for a few years. After the age of 10, there is usually no such recollection.
Such cases suggest that some children may have been reincarnated. But what if all of us are reincarnated? Then it might be that reincarnation plays a key role in a toddler's acquisition of language. In China a toddler may pick up Chinese easily because it lived a previous life as a Chinese person; and in America a child may pick up English easily because he or she lived a previous life as an English-speaking person.
Besides being of potential value in explaining language acquisition, the hypothesis of reincarnation might be useful in explaining homosexuality, under the assumption that a homosexual man is a reincarnated person who had a previous life as a woman. As discussed here, existing explanations for homosexuality are very unconvincing.
Paranormal Hypothesis #3: Morphic Resonance
The hypothesis of morphic resonance has been advanced by the biologist Rupert Sheldrake. Although he doesn't call it a claim about the paranormal, it postulates something so strange that it can be called paranormal. Sheldrake's web site describes the theory like this:
Morphic resonance is a process whereby self-organising systems inherit a memory from previous similar systems. In its most general formulation, morphic resonance means that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits. The hypothesis of morphic resonance also leads to a radically new interpretation of memory storage in the brain and of biological inheritance. Memory need not be stored in material traces inside brains, which are more like TV receivers than video recorders, tuning into influences from the past. And biological inheritance need not all be coded in the genes, or in epigenetic modifications of the genes; much of it depends on morphic resonance from previous members of the species. Thus each individual inherits a collective memory from past members of the species, and also contributes to the collective memory, affecting other members of the species in the future.
We can roughly think of the idea of morphic resonance like this: there is kind of a global or cosmic information field, which gets added to whenever any natural thing has an experience; and natural things can draw from this information field in a way that makes easier that which might otherwise be very hard. Under such a theory, for example, the first time a spider made a spider web it might have been very, very hard; but all subsequent attempts might be easier; and the more spider webs that had been made, the easier it might be. In this document, Sheldrake claims to have various forms of evidence in support of the theory of morphic resonance.
If such a theory is true, it might help explain the acquisition of language by a very small child. Under the morphic resonance idea, such a thing might be easy because it has been done so many times before by previous children. As Sheldrake says on page 30 of this document:
According to the hypothesis of morphic resonance, that which has been learned by many people in the past should be easier for people to learn today. Everyone draws upon and in turn contributes to a collective human memory.
Paranormal Hypothesis #4: External Endowments
The hypothesis of external endowments is the idea that there is some external non-human information facility that gives humans skills that they would not otherwise have. Such a hypothesis may come to mind after you study the history of savants, many of whom have astonishing skills that seem impossible to explain through normal means, often combined with severe mental handicaps. An example of a savant is the late Kim Peek, who could accurately recall the details of 10,000 books he had read, despite having an IQ of only 87. Other examples are Tony DeBlois, who can play 8000 songs from memory, and Derek Paravicini who can play a piece after hearing it only once, despite having a severe learning disability.
In the case of savants, it is as if some external agent gave some special endowment to partially make up for the mental handicap. Such a hypothesis may be broadened to cover the case of language acquisition. It may be that every time a small child learns a language, there is assistance from some mysterious external information facility.