Much mystery still surrounds the psychology of language, how humans developed communication, and the exact cognitive processes surrounding its acquisition, formation, and use. Cognitive psychologists have attempted to explain speech by employing theories that seem to, at least in part, help us to better understand the mechanics, along with some of the processes involved.

What is language?

Humans appear to possess a strong need to convey information to one another. Before written communication was in existence, spoken languages have been used to express thoughts, ideas, instructions, and cultural and societal values. Speech is not absolutely necessary for communication, however the development of language has provided the means to convey information accurately and conveniently from one person to another.

Is language an inseparable process of thought?

There is some evidence to suggest that the ability to speak and thought are somehow connected and that our thoughts and speech are actually one in the same. However, as scientist Merlin Donald once noted, it has been observed in patients that have lost the ability to speak that they do not necessarily lose their ability to think, suggesting that speech and thought are not interrelated [1].

Is language a genetic inheritance (nature)?

 There appear to be areas in the brain, such as Broca’s area, that are dedicated to speech. However, many of these areas do not develop for use with language until a person starts speaking. In addition, it has been found that the FoxP2 gene (present in every vertebrate) is responsible for the movements around the mouth that produce speech. The FoxP2 gene in humans however, has two sections different than any other animal that appear to be responsible for humans speaking instead of just making noises.

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Do we adopt language from our environment (nurture)?

Feral children (children raised by wild animals) tend to develop communication common to the animals that raised them (such as barking instead of language) supporting the idea that environment has a major role to play in speech development.

Is there a universal human language?

There are many different languages in the world that have developed over centuries. However, studies have shown that there is indeed a universal grammar of sorts that people will develop when attempting to communicate when they do not share a common language. The process of “creolezation” is when humans try to communicate and use gestures and sounds to form a type of “pidjin” which is a crude common way of speaking that they can use to communicate. When creolezation occurs, Chomsky has noted a set of common grammar rules that appear to be innate and shared by every human [1].

Is there a portion of the brain dedicated to language?

Noam Chomsky theorized that every human is born with a “device” or “language organ” described as an area in the brain that is dedicated to speech. However, further investigation by others including Lieberman point out that humans display other skills for which there is no area of the brain dedicated to just speaking. In fact, studies have shown that areas of the brain that handle language can vary from person to person and that the areas of the brain that do handle speech develop as language is learned and spoken. Probably the closest match to what one could call a “language organ” dedicated to only speaking would be “Broca’s Area” [1].  Brain functionality is difficult to observe given that the human brain is structured in layers so we mostly have information about the layers on top of the brain, while the functionality of structures underneath tend to go untested. Recent studies using techniques that can more clearly identify brain activity underneath the top layers has found that there area areas other than Broca’s Area which appear to indeed be dedicated to only language functionality. If the new studies are confirmed, it could prove that humans are born with a speech “device” of sorts as suggested by Chomsky, just that this device consists of several different areas.

Is language the product of human evolution?

Of all the living things on earth, only humans have thus far exhibited the ability to communicate and convey information via a common spoken language. One theory as to why this has occurred is that unlike other animals, humans have changed or evolved so that the larynx is farther down the throat, producing longer vocal cords that facilitate speech. However, such evidence does not indicate whether this development was due to the use of language facilitating survival or the change facilitating speech. However, as mentioned earlier, there is strong evidence to support the idea that humans are born with an innate ability to use language [1].