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Birth of a Language

When and how did human beings begin communicating with one another? This segment from Evolution: "The Mind's Big Bang," explores the emergence of language. In the 1980s, deaf Nicaraguan children brought together in Managua generated a new sign language, complete with syntax. For the first time in history, scholars witnessed the birth of a language, suggesting a linguistic "bioprogram." Featured participants: Maria Noname and Judy Kegl.

Credits: 2001 WGBH Educational Foundation and Clear Blue Sky Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.

Birth of a Language

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4 min, 57 sec

Topics Covered:
Human Evolution


Birth of a Language:

Proud parents of twins sometimes recall a baffling, unique language their youngsters seem to create in the crib, understood by no one but the children. The twins' special communication tends to fade quickly, diluted and then replaced by the language the world around them speaks. Those parents' stories resonate with scientists who are trying to figure out one of the most baffling questions about language: Is it something our brain is genetically wired to produce?

Under most circumstances, it is almost inevitable that a child will learn a language. The cerebral cortex, that region of the brain that allows expression through language, seems to be influenced by the child's surroundings. Spanish would be learned in the Andes or Greek in Athens, for example. The famed linguist Noam Chomsky says all languages are ruled by a "universal grammar."

If left alone, would children develop their own language? It seemed impossible for scientists to find out.

Then, in the 1980s as part of its literacy campaign, the Nicaraguan government opened a school to educate deaf children. Children who had been gesturing in rudimentary ways to convey thoughts to parents were brought together. Surprisingly, they created a new language, built upon their own individual signs for thoughts, that even their teachers could not decipher at first. The basic language wiring was in the brain, some scientists concluded, but enhanced and advanced by social interaction. The children, with their distinctive gestures for entire thoughts, seemed to have an innate bioprogram, or the ability to develop language. The language was complete with syntax and grammar, without any sound or speaking input. Moreover, it appeared to actually evolve as the younger set expanded and refined basic gestures the older students had mastered.

It is likely that language developed as humans cognitively evolved to have something to say: There is no reason to communicate directions if we have no comprehension of where we are going. Scientists believe that the basic organization of language developed over tens of thousands of years, but was pretty well set by the time humans left Africa. Indeed, a ten-day-old infant brought from China to Brooklyn would be equally as capable of learning English as Chinese. And the child would no doubt learn to pronounce "coffee" with the trademark "co-aw-fee." Just like the deaf children in Nicaragua, we all have the same predisposition to language. How it is molded, formed, and ultimately communicated, however, depends on those around us.

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