I learned to speak a number of languages during my traveling years. Learning a language in country ‘on the job’, so to speak, is an easy, quick and enjoyable way to learn. During those years, my interest was to communicate—not eloquently mind you, but just enough to get by. Several hundred words and some fearless pantomime (especially at first) worked wonderfully.
Thirty years later homeschooling our sons, I picked Chinese to be our foreign language. Not surprisingly, I’d forgotten most of what I knew. That goes for the other languages I picked up as well—use it or lose it, as they say. This time it was not ‘on the job’, and so the going was slow—slow enough to observe how I was learning as I was learning. (photos: all are infant son Luke)
I was surprised to notice how entangled word meaning is with emotion. In other words, an emotional connection was essential to know truly and fluently the word. Until that connection is established, the mind just translates words back and forth between one’s native language (English for me). In short: Without an emotional underpinning, words are just random sounds.
I imagine most of us are unaware of this crucial connection because it lies at the base of cognitive awareness. Therefore, I was happy to see this Science New article, “Babies’ flexible squeals may enable them to talk later” (1), add support to my linguistic hypothesis cum epiphany. As the researcher D. Kimbrough Oller, points out, “Attaching sounds freely to different emotions represents a basic building block of spoken language. Any word or phrase can signal any mental state, depending on context and pronunciation. Infants’ flexible manipulation of sounds to signal how they feel lays the groundwork for word learning”.
Now, I take this further than any scientist is willing to go. I would say most everything we say, if not truly everything, boils down to how we feel. Specifically, the sine qua non is what we like and dislike, what attracts us and repels us, what pains us and pleases us.
We are just so in the midst of ‘it’ that we don’t see ‘it’. When we are deep in the forest, we can’t see the forest for the trees.
Nor Is Language About ‘Higher Intelligence’
This report from a recent Science News, Finding the brain’s common language, supports my observations on language. Erich Jarvis, a neurobiology researcher says that the ability to imitate sounds, not higher intelligence, is the key to language. Most animals are born already knowing the calls they will croon, but human babies learn words by mimicking how others talk.
Jarvis and his colleagues have discovered that the brain circuitry for speech and birdsong is remarkably similar. Humans and vocal-learning birds, like songbirds and parrots, have networks of neurons that connect analogous brain regions. One of these connections hooks up the brain area related to speaking and singing to neurons in the brain stem that control the muscles of the voice box (called the larynx in humans). Animals incapable of vocal learning do not have such connections.
The Days Of Human Exceptionalism Are Numbered
I clearly see the light at the end of the human-uniqueness tunnel. However, I expect ‘we’ will fight this demotion every step of the way. The need to believe one belongs to the ‘greatest, smartest, wisest, strongest’ species on earth is an irresistible tribal instinct. Yet… it is only a matter of time; the evidence will win over most people. Naturally, there will always be a few hold outs—a few Flat Earthers.
(1) Here are some excerpts from that report just in case the link doesn’t work.
Babies take a critical step toward learning to speak before they can say a word or even babble. By 3 months of age, infants flexibly use three types of sounds — squeals, growls and vowel-like utterances — to express a range of emotions, from positive to neutral to negative, researchers say.
Attaching sounds freely to different emotions represents a basic building block of spoken language, say psycholinguist D. Kimbrough Oller of the University of Memphis in Tennessee and his colleagues. Any word or phrase can signal any mental state, depending on context and pronunciation. Infants’ flexible manipulation of sounds to signal how they feel lays the groundwork for word learning, the scientists conclude April 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Language evolution took off once this ability emerged in human babies, Oller proposes. Ape and monkey researchers have mainly studied vocalizations that have one meaning, such as distress calls.
“At this point, the conservative conclusion is that the human infant at 3 months is already vocally freer than has been demonstrated for any other primate at any age,” Oller says.
Oller’s group videotaped infants playing and interacting with their parents in a lab room equipped with toys and furniture. Acoustic analyses identified nearly 7,000 utterances made by infants up to 1 year of age that qualified as laughs, cries, squeals, growls or vowel-like sounds.
Trained experimenters separately judged whether each sound an infant made, and the facial expression accompanying that sound, was positive, negative or neutral.
Overall, infants produced the flexible trio of emotion sounds much more often than laughs or cries. Babies most frequently uttered vowel-like sounds, which were less distinctive than babbling that starts at around 7 months of age.
Neuroscientists previously reported that monkeys, apes and humans share an ancient brain pathway linked to emotional sounds such as laughing and crying. In the new study, babies’ laughs overwhelmingly expressed positive feelings and cries usually conveyed negative feelings.
Ancient humans must have evolved new neural connections that supported early voluntary control of sounds other than laughing or crying to communicate emotions, remarks psychologist Michael Owren of Emory University in Atlanta.
“This groundbreaking work shows that, from the beginning, human infants have flexible vocal chops that put them on a very different developmental course than found in monkeys and apes,” Owren says.