Have you ever stopped and pondered how animals like bees and birds can communicate through fixed repetitive patterns, but they do not have language? And how unique is it that human language is not limited to these simple communication patterns, but instead has the infinite capacity to create new sounds, combinations, and words?
At smallTalk, we talk a lot about language—how it works and how our brains process it. Well today, we’re marveling at this infinite potential that language possesses.
Our Brains Just Get It
Language potential starts in our brains and it starts early. Even though speech sounds are composed of energy waves like all other kinds of sounds, the human brain treats the speech sounds differently.
As mentioned in How Your Baby Learns Language, your baby’s brain is super at recognizing the patterns of the language (or languages) that are spoken to them. And over time, they will acquire the building blocks needed to eventually speak that language themselves.
Languages Upon Languages
We see infinite potential demonstrated within language when we consider that there are thousands of languages spoken in the world today. The exact number is up for debate, but it’s somewhere around 7,000.
Ok, maybe that’s not infinite, but it sure is A LOT.
Many languages can trace their descent from a common source, an original speech community, making them into a language family. Language families have similar sound systems, vocabularies, and grammar patterns. For example, the romance language family descends from Latin which was spoken in ancient Rome and includes languages such as Spanish, Italian, and French to name a few.
The similarities and differences between the world’s many languages are not limited simply to sound systems, vocabularies, and grammar patterns that we use to identify language families (as if that wasn’t enough variety!). Some languages also use changes in musical pitch on the vowel to distinguish words from one another. These changes in pitch are called tone, which is why these languages are referred to as tonal languages (for example: Mandarine Chinese). Even within tonal languages you will see that the tones they make use of vary widely.
See? Languages upon languages.
How Written Language Compares
Written language is a symbolic system, serving as a reminder rather than an exact representation of all that spoken language has to offer. Writing does not fully capture everything that speakers know about the sounds of their own language, but rather, relies on context.
Take for example sentences like, “I am going to read that book.” versus “I read that book already.” You know from context that the word ‘read’ is pronounced differently in each sentence, but to your eye, they appear to be the same.
The world of human language and the depths of the potential it holds is complex and fascinating! We’re here to help demystify the science, so you as parents can help your baby be the best little language learner possible! And as a bonus along the way? We give you some fun facts like we did today.
Feel free to store them away for trivia night or for your future as a Jeopardy contestant. ?