By alternating compression and rarefaction of a transmitting medium, sound waves can be propagated from a source. If these waves reach a detector capable of converting these patterns into recognizable patterns, information can be communicated. This requirement is a most generalized one, and allows for sounds generated naturally by living species into either air or water to reach other members of their species, or of other species who are hunting them or seeking to hide from them.
In application, this concept allows extension of vocalization to be applied beyond air and water into electrical impulses traveling through telegraph or telephone wires, or into electromagnetic signals for WiFi units, or to radio telescopes generating longer frequency electromagnetic radiation reaching out toward other possibly inhabited planets.
When vocalization is patterned and organized, it can communicate information vital to the safely and survival of a group. As mentioned, arboreal monkeys emit a series of noises that embed warnings to their troops: unmistakably distinct shrieks for eagle, or snake, or leopard. Sometimes the capacity for generating and detecting sounds can assist packs in hunting their prey, as in echolocation used by creatures as diverse as bats and dolphins, or specific early human sounds that might have indicated “down there” or “left” to a group tracking mammoths or mastodons.
In every case where information conveys an advantage to survival, communication has evolved, even when it involves no sound at all. Ants leave scent trails to guide their nest mates to food, and bees perform elaborate dances to guide their kind to the best sources for honey. And while it is true that experiments with other primates has revealed a capacity to use computer key-languages like Yerkish to express wishes, feelings, hope, intents, and even pleasure, these experiments have not yet established what for now appears to be a uniquely human ability to create infinitely embedded complete thoughts by extension from a single starting point, or referent.
It is this ability, illustrated by the human capacity to extend, potentially ad infinitum the children’s story, “The House that Jack Built” that has allowed Noam Chomsky to calculate that the human brain lacks an adequate populations of neurons and synaptic connections to perform this linguistic feat by recall alone. Unless the verse following “that lived in the house that Jack built” is always and forever predictable and repetitious, and unless it always appears invariant in the same order and place in the march of the story, then an argument is admitted, reductio ad absurdum, that the human mind contains within it, and beyond the mathematically limit of its number of connections, an inherent biochemical program for creating and expressing thoughts, a very efficient natural machine that lacks any limitation on novel expressions.
Communication is the basic requirement for human intellectual growth. Language of some form is its means. This does not mean that the language needs to be articulated sounds. But it does mean that some system must assist the advancement of conception and expression within the brain to include others who may assist in the creative process or transmit its method to future generations. Many human individuals born deaf learn sign language and achieve as well as fully as speaking people. The undergraduate population at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. is exclusively deaf. This does not mean that they cannot be trained to speak; it simply means that they cannot hear sounds. But in fact, deaf people have a distinct advantage over normal hearing people in at least one theater of communication: scuba diving.
Most scuba masks and regulators are without pick-up mikes, leaving hearing people stuck with a minium number of hand signals for “Are you okay?,” “I’m out of air,” or tapping on a watch crystal to indicate “Time to ascend.” By contrast, deaf people arrive underwater with a full range of complete communication signs to enrich their experience. Yet both deaf and hearing people, not to mention blind people, need to acquire some form of linguistic expression before they are nine years old, or they will never speak at all.
In a royal determination to discover the “natural language of man” Frederick of Prussia sequestered a nursery full of infants (a word that means, literally, as “without language”) to be cared for by nurses, to be fed and changed, brought toys, played with, hugged, kissed, but never spoken to. Eventually, the monarch was convinced, in that way that too many powerful strong-willed individuals are convinced, that one of these children would discover the spark of spoken expression, and things would take off from there, settling the question.
It isn’t clear what he expected. Probably fluent German, or perhaps Esperanto, a perfectly regular invented language that enjoyed a brief popularity during the early twentieth century. But what emerged instead from these children, despite Frederick’s sustained expectation, was a collective lifetime of silence. Unstimulated by any language, individuals will not spontaneously generate their own.
On the face of it, this result seems to stove in the keel off of Chomsky’s idea of neurally embedded language, but in fact it simply imposes a caveat. Language is not simply a neural manifestation alone. It does not arise by a genetically programmed germination of a primal, tangled nexus of language cells growing slowly from an individual’s birth until they connect with the tongue, mouth and vocal cords. So, what is it?
The development of language in individual humans is a profoundly social phenomenon. Both nature and nurture are required. No one would agree with that more, or more eloquently, than a person who could not originally speak. Or see. Or hear. Her name was Helen Keller and she fought a losing battle of obstinance against a teacher and disciplinarian as unyielding in her devotion to instruction as Helen was to rebellion and riot against her isolating handicap.
The teacher’s name was Annie Sullivan, and she introduced Helen, slowly, to the world around her, not by waiting to see what language Helen might spontaneously produce, but by guiding her through a dark, silent world that terrified and confused her. Eventually Helen Keller learned to read by braille and to vocalize language, becoming an inspiration for disabled persons, an eloquent spokesperson for special education, and one of the most admired, recognized, celebrated and awarded people in the world.
Helen Keller’s parents were rich. And impatient. They didn’t mind paying Annie Sullivan to sacrifice her life for their daughter, but this kind of 24/7 care is unavailable through public school systems. Nevertheless, Helen Keller took that one great leap for humanity by establishing that a combination of intelligence and stimulus are essential to mastering language, and to providing that person with the tools for emerging as a fully functioning social individual, expressing her own potential to its maximum.
Somewhere between Frederick of Prussia’s strict but cruel scientific experiment and Annie Sullivan’s determined triumph over a rebellious young girl are a few sad cases of individuals reared by misguided parents who failed detection by social services systems. These include a boy in Los Angeles locked away from birth in a closet who was never spoken too, but who overheard fragments of speech. Words or phrases only, faintly and infrequently, through his door. And a young girl in Russia who was put out in shed because her parents wanted a son. She was fed with the dogs, slept with them, and fell into a quadrupedal gait, adopting some of the social conventions of canines, like licking to groom. Both of these children were discovered and rescued, then committed to what was hoped might be a remedial course of linguistic advancement. They did not want for resources or attention.
The national and international media followed the story – until, as with all media stories, another story of greater interest supplanted it. But in the end, for all of the efforts of authorities and academics, these two children – while exhibiting a delight at the stimuli of an open world and learning many words – could not advance to the Chomsky threshold of exploring those infinitely embedded verses within The House that Jack Built. Their capacity seemed to hit some kind of cognitive wall at the ability to recognize and identify objects by the correct noun, and their ability to express their basic desires, such as seeing a glass of lemonade and saying, “Want.”
As regards the consequences of acquiring language for human development, there seem to be well characterized requirements, the sine qua nons not just of expression, but of developing advanced analytical thinking. The first is being taught language, and using it in social, often familial contexts. As mathematician and philosopher Jacob Bronowski observed, “I began life speaking Polish. It was my native language. Today I remember not a word of Polish, but if I had not learned a language then, I would be without one now.”
One of the greatest novelists in the English language made the same trek. Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness and The Nigger of the Narcissus, spoke Polish as a first language, then forget it entirely. This is another fact in favor of Chomsky, also a Pole. Language is not accumulated word-by-word and strung together as necessary; it is a neural machine that can be reprogrammed as long as the original wiring is properly stimulated and developed by a certain age.
The second consequence of language is that individuals who are exposed to a large range of expression and large vocabulary are provided a linguistic tool kit with which they can say exactly what they mean, because they are not limited by the absence of specific nouns and verbs.
English provides a wealth of range in its specific and accurate nouns and its vivid, invigorating verbs. In households where complex conversation leaps back and forth at the dinner table, and where books line the walls, and where education is valued and rewarded, the children not only perform better in school, but they are better able to perform better in school.
In other words, despite the belief that an individuals IQ is a fixed part of their birth package, the data shows quite irrefutably that children with larger working vocabularies have higher IQs than socially comparable children with smaller vocabularies, even when the samples contain members from the same family. So it is not just genetics and nurture, it is about curiosity and initiative.
The third consequence of language is that its usage is often taken as a sign of intelligence and disciplined thinking, whether or not that assumption is otherwise verified. In other words, perceptions that are real are real in their consequences. More attention is likely to be directed to an individual who measures their words carefully and modulates presentation than is to a person who is always stumbling over malapropisms. Probably in an attempt to “connect” to the average voter, former President George W. Bush descended into such a tangle of linguistic baboonery that it wasn’t clear whether his real calling shouldn’t have been a stand-up comedian. By counterexample to Helen Keller, Bush miraculously graduated from Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School without any apparent ability to forge a coherent thought into words. And the lesson from this is fairly easy. Don’t talk dumb unless you want to be regarded as dumb. Read More