In the field of linguistics there has for long been a debate on how human beings develop the ability to communicate. Often referred to as the nature versus nurture debate, the argument is over whether we are born with an innate ability for language or learn to use language through our interactions with environmental stimuli. Over time, both sides have presented convincing evidence. For example, Noam Chomsky, a linguist from MIT, demonstrated that babbling newborn babies produce phenomes (the smallest units of sound) which they could never have heard in the language of their present country, but which are used in a variety of languages all over the world. Babbling babies’ use of phenomes proves, according to Chomsky, that the human brain is prepackaged with a “language faculty.” Meanwhile, proponents of the nurture theory say babies merely make these sounds independent of any prewired linguistic ability. Given the nature of our vocal chords, any human has the potential to make these sounds; certain phenomes only become more difficult as a particular human grows more accustomed to the sound of the language in which he or she is immersed. It’s a matter of cultural evolution, according to the nurture camp. Depending on your interpretation of the data, the debate leans to one side or the other. But it’s most likely a combination of both: humans have some sort of built-in, prepackaged ability for language, which formed slowly via mechanisms of Darwinian evolution, but which quickly develops and matures based on input from the environment.
No matter which way the debate leans, all seem to agree on one fact: each one of us begins developing our linguistic intelligence at an early stage. Now that we’re older, we can hone in on this linguistic intelligence and put it to use. After all, before you master something, you must first understand it.
Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner says humans developed language as a tool. It’s a means at our disposal for achieving an end. Every time you speak, according to Gardner, you use language to achieve one of four ends.
They’re broken down as follows:
- People use language to convince or induce other people to a course of action. A boss, for example, may tell his employee that he needs his TPS reports by the end of the week, or a friend may ask another friend to pass the salad dressing at the table. According to Gardner, lawyers and politicians have developed this ability to a high degree, but it’s also an ability that begins to form at a young age—like when a three-year-old wants a second helping of cake.
- Language is used for mnemonics. Before humans had language, memorization was far more difficult. Language, however, functions as a tool for codifying and memorizing things. We use chunks to memorize phone numbers. We use mnemonics like Never, Eat, Sour, Watermelons to memorize the cardinal directions.
- Language is used as a tool for explanation. In fact, it’s the primary tool for teaching. Whether explaining literature or mathematics, anyone trying to teach someone something does so through the use of language. This is part of the reason why the human lexicon is forever expanding. As new developments and breakthroughs are made, new vocabulary words are needed to explain them. Google it.
- Finally, language is used to talk about language. That is, language is used to reflect upon language. This is called “metalinguistic analysis.” We can see this when a child asks his parent about conceptual words, like “dream” or “wish.” These questions would require the parents to think about the word and use language to explain its meaning.
Now that you have (I hope) a better understanding of the uses of language, try thinking of ways that you can put it to use. You can be confident in your linguistic abilities—after all they’ve been evolving since before you were born. Ask yourself the following questions: How can I put language to use to get a colleague at work to do something for me? What mnemonic techniques can I use to memorize things? How can I better use language to teach someone something, to make something run more smoothly on my next conference call or at work? If there is a difficult concept you’re working with, look at it at the quantum level. Look at the actual words you’re using to describe it and see if you can’t break those words down into easier-to-understand concepts. Who knows, a little metalinguistic analysis may very well make the answer to your problem crystal clear.