Females have an advantage over males as regards several different
kinds of verbal ability. For example, females’ speech
is more fluid: they can pronounce more words or sentences
in a given amount of time. Also, language disorders are more
common among boys than among girls, regardless of the type
of education received. For example, 4 times more boys than
girls suffer from stuttering, dyslexia,
Accroding to a stduy
by Cmabrigde Uvinertisy, the odrer of the ltteers in a wrod
is not ipmrotnat; the olny ipmrotnat thnig is that the frist
and lsat ltteers be in the rihgt palce. The rset can be in
toatl dsiaarry and you can sitll raed the wrods wtih no pborelm.
That’s bacesue the hamun biran does not raed erevy
ltteer istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Are you outraged at the number of spelling mistakes in the
preceding paragraph? Well, don’t let that stop you from
appreciating how well your brain works, because those mistakes
didn’t keep you from reading and understanding the paragraph
THE CONNECTIONS BETWEEN THOUGHT AND LANGUAGE
All living beings communicate.
In fact, the moment two animals encounter each other, they
exchange visual, auditory, and olfactory signals that create
mental images in their nervous systems. Every animal thus constructs
its own mental representation of the world, to which it responds
Some species communicate through a code
of gestures; the “dance”of the bees is one example.
Other species communicate through a code of sounds—primates,
for instance, use their vocal cords to produce various auditory
signals. Compared with visual signals, auditory signals have
two advantages: they can be perceived at night and over longer
Human language, which also uses sounds, is thus only one form
of communication among many. But it is a very sophisticated one:
to speak with other people is to arbitrarily agree that particular
series of sounds designate particular things. The big advantage
of spoken language over grunts and cries is that this precise association
between arbitrary combinations of sounds and objects lets speakers
refer to these objects even when they are not physically present.
For these arbitrary conventions to make sense, a group of humans must agree to
one of the many different languages spoken in the world constitutes a set
of agreed-upon conventions that establish equivalences between sounds and things.
We can thus say that the use of an articulate language is the characteristic
that defines the human species: there is no human society that does not have
a language, and no species that has a language except human beings.
and understanding of language thus constitute one of the most
specific functions of the human brain. A parrot can imitate
the sounds of human language but will never communicate abstract
concepts with these sounds. Similarly, experimental attempts
to teach great apes the rudiments of language have met with
rather limited success (follow the Experiment module link to
So what is the connection between thought and language in human
beings? When we think, do we really always use language to do so?
And if we do, why is it still often so hard to express our thoughts
clearly? Might speaking a given language predispose people to think
in a certain way? What about deaf people who communicate with sign
language: when they are thinking to themselves, do they use signs?
Studies have shown that
among heterosexual couples, certain communication problems
arise because men and women use language for different purposes.
Each sex therefore applies its own criteria to interpret
what the other is saying, which can result in misunderstandings.
For example, women may misconstrue men’s natural tendency
to be less verbally expressive in conjugal relationships as
a sign of rejection or indifference. Likewise, men may tend
to misinterpret women’s desire to discuss these relationships
as an attempt to control them. Another classic example is when
a woman simply wants to talk about her problems, and her male
partner immediately starts offering solutions.
Some authors see communication between male and female
partners as so challenging that it amounts to an attempt
at intercultural communication!
When children are
learning to speak, they do not immediately master all the
subtle articulatory movements involved in making the sounds
of their language. Thus, until at least age 5, it is quite
common and entirely normal for children to say things like “wowwipop”(lollipop), “betht” (best),
and “twees” (trees).
What are the relative
roles of heredity and environment in the acquisition of
language? First of all, it seems obvious that language
is not completely genetic. Human beings speak a
great many different languages,
and young children can learn any of them easily if exposed
to them early enough in life. But the opposite is just
as true: children cannot learn any language unless they
are exposed to it during a very specific critical
period that is genetically determined.
There are several other universal characteristics that
are inherent in language or in language learning. Consequently,
as is so often the case with human behaviours, the true
nature of language is a combination of nature and nurture.
LEARNING TO SPEAK
Unlike learning to
walk, where you can name the exact date that a baby
first lets go of its parent’s hand and walks on its own,
learning to speak a language is a gradual process that
spans a number of years. But it still represents a kind
of minor miracle as the child’s speech becomes
richer and more articulate every day.
To understand how a child starts learning to speak, we must go back and see how
its senses begin to develop during the first weeks of life in the womb (follow
the Experiment module link to the left), because it is through these senses that
the child will construct its first mental representations of the world, which
it will subsequently refine by means of language.
Once the child is born, its memory develops
and helps it to move beyond the “here and now” limits of the sensory
world. The child discovers memories of pleasant and unpleasant events and learns
how to act on other people’s minds to reinvoke
the pleasant sensations while avoiding the unpleasant ones. The first way
that babies do this is through their repertoire of facial expressions, cries,
and babbling. These are called the prelinguistic stages of communication,
and they correspond roughly to the first year of postnatal life.
Though not all children go through the same stages at the
same ages, scientists have been able to determine some approximate
ages for various milestones in language development.
For the first two months after birth, babies make only reflexive
or quasi-reflexive vocalizations—a mixture of cries and vegetative sounds
(yawns, sighs, etc.).
At around 3 months,
the baby’s language
is best described as babbling—sounds produced in no
specific way. The child is thus producing its first rudimentary
syllables at just about the same time as its first smile,
which is the first sign of social communication.
From 3 to 8 months, the baby’s babbling
evolves. The baby starts playing with its voice, producing
sounds that are very high-pitched, very low-pitched, very
loud, or very soft.
Between 5 and 10 months, what is known as “canonical
babbling” first appears, marking the culmination of
prelinguistic development. The child now has the ingredients
for future structured language: well formed strings of consonant/vowel
syllables, such as /bababa/, mamama/, /papapa/, /tabada/,
and so on.
At age 6 to 8 months, babies
also begin to acquire the elements of prosody (melody and
rhythm) specific to the language they hear being spoken around
them. The consonants and vowels of their canonical babbling
then begin to reflect certain specific features of this language.
It is at this age, for example, that Japanese babies stop
being able to distinguish
the sounds of “r ”and “l ”.
Between 7 and 12 months, babies begin to understand simple,
familiar orders accompanied by gestures. It is also now that “mixed babbling” begins,
as babies begin to pronounce actual words in the midst of their babbling.
At around 11 to 13 months, all of the sounds that children produce
belong to their mother tongue.They make increasingly frequent use of gestures
and changes in intonation to impart meaning to “proto-words”. Gradually,
these gestures supporting proto-words give way to auditory
labels that other people understand: that is, to actual words.
Just before the child says
words, however, it must pass an important milestone: pointing
with its finger.
Until the age of about 10 months,
a baby who is stuck in its high chair and wants an
object that it sees but cannot reach will express
this desire by gesturing with its arm with the palm
of its hand open downward, displaying great agitation,
making intense vocalizations, and looking back and
forth between the object and its mother.
But between 11 and 13 months, the baby
changes its attitude radically as it manages to point with
its index finger to identify the object of its desire. This
simple gesture is immensely powerful, because it actually
plants an idea in the other person’s mental world.
In fact, when a baby starts pointing with its finger, this
means that it has understood the principle of speech; all
it has to do now is learn how to make certain “auditory
with its mouth and tongue instead of pointing with its
finger. Pointing with one’s index finger thus seems
to be a mandatory step toward speaking
one’s first word (even though not all children
who learn to point necessarily go on to develop language).
Children who have
dysphasia generally show delays in the
normal stages of language development fairly
early on. For example, they may not talk at all for the
first years of their lives, or may still not say any real
words (mommy, daddy etc.) at the age of 18 months, or not
speak any 2-to-3 words sentences at age 2, or not start
asking questions with the word “why”at around
For a long time, the
areas of the brain that are involved in language were referred
to as its “speech centres”. But nowadays, they
are regarded more as relays in a network. This model would
also explain how people can sometimes recover a given language
function even after the “centre” that supposedly
controls it has been destroyed.
Four out of every
five people with aphasia are male. The female brain thus
seems to be organized for language in a way that makes
it more resistant to the various forms of aphasia. Even
when the brain damage involved is comparable, women generally
end up with more limited language deficits than men.
It is convenient to
divide language disorders into two categories: those that
arise in the course of language development, known as dysphasia,
and those that result from disease or injury, known as aphasia.
an abnormality in language development associated with malfunctioning
in the areas
of the brain that process language. Dysphasic children
hear properly but without understanding the meanings of words
or sentences. And when they speak, they have a lot of trouble
in making themselves understood.
This deficit is, however, limited to the area of language,
and otherwise the children display entirely normal intelligence.
Dysphasia does not involve relational disorders either, because,
unlike autistic children, for example, dysphasic children try
to communicate in every possible way.
In fact, the term “dysphasic” is applied to all
children who cannot speak well for no apparent reason, and
the speech therapists who treat them are fairly close to believing
that every case of dysphasia is unique.
Indeed, the causes of dysphasia remain mysterious and involve
many factors. They do seem to include a genetic component,
since some forms of dysphasia run in families and boys are
three times more likely to be dysphasic than girls. But interactions
and exposure to language early in life may also play a role,
which is why the various types of dysphasia are classified
as neurodevelopmental disorders.
a language disorder acquired as the result of damage to the language-dominant
brain hemisphere at a specific time in the life of an
individual who had already fully mastered language. People
with aphasia usually do not have any impairment of their
cognitive faculties or of their ability to move the muscles
used in articulating words.
The types of illnesses and injuries that can cause aphasia
include strokes, head injuries (as the result of motor vehicle
collisions, falls, or other accidents), brain tumours, degenerative
neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and infectious
neurological diseases such as encephalitis.
To regard aphasia as merely a language disorder is far too
simplistic. It is actually a communication disorder that considerably
disrupts the sufferers’ personal, familial, and social
relationships. Often, aphasia forces people to give up their
jobs and their preferred leisure activities, thus increasing
their social isolation. Depression is
another regularly reported consequence of aphasia.
not really a language disorder in the strict sense. It is
a disruption in the flow of speech in communication situations,
and it affects four times more boys than girls. In some children
who have inherited more fragile speech faculties, stuttering
emerges between 2 and 5 years of age. Other children may
suddenly begin stuttering as the result of a psychological
shock, such as a death in the family. In general, stuttering
mainly affects “hard”consonant sounds, such as “k”,
“g ”, and “p ”. Stuttering is described
as “clonic” when the repeated element is a syllable
(“I want to bor-bor-bor-bor-borrow that”) and “tonic” when
it is only the first phoneme of a word (“I want to b-b-b-b-borrow
People who stutter stop doing so when they are singing, or
reciting a memorized text, or reading out loud—in fact,
whenever they are in a speaking situation that does not require
them to communicate spontaneously and hence to adjust their
breathing as they go along. Because stuttering is a problem
that is intimately connected with the “mechanics of speech”,
stutterers are sensitive to stress, fatigue, emotions, and
excitement. One final point: as some experts put it, to emphasize
that we still really understand very little about stuttering, “The
only difference between a stutterer and a non-stutterer is
that the stutterer stutters!”