Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An adapting language

Today's Independent celebrates the forthcoming World Languages Day by running a fascinating article about world languages and the "discovery" of a previously unknown language from the Himalayas. The article is well worth a read for its overview of the decline of world languages - it is estimated that about half of the world's 7,000 languages will be extinct by 2100 - but also because of the light it sheds on new theories of language acquisition.

One of the most striking bits of the article (for me, at least) is the suggestion from evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel that language is not a product of an inbuilt language acquisition device or language instinct, but should be viewed as similar to an organism in its own right, adapting to the human brain in order to survive:

All humans have the same brain, which is why successful languages tend to resemble one another, giving the illusion of a universal grammar. But, Pagel says, they may have arrived at that similarity via different routes, and solved the problem of being easy to learn in different ways. 

I'm not much an evolutionary linguist (or much of any sort of linguist, if truth be told) but this is a weird and rather wonderful idea that really appeals. There's some more about Pagel's research here and here, if you want to look further.

edited to add:
A colleague at UCL (thanks, Jill) tells me that Simon Kirby at Edinburgh is also interested in this language evolution approach. For those of you who have seen the excellent Why Do We Talk? Horizon documentary on language acquisition from last year (and available here last time I looked), Simon Kirby appears towards the end to talk about the experiment in which students are asked to name different coloured fruits. One of his papers is available here.

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