The Five Pillars of Language Evolution – and Why we Mustn’t Neglect them

I’m privileged to say that I’m part of a team of lecturers who is qualifying the first generation of bilingual education professionals according to the demands of recent legislation – yet to be approved – recommended by the National Education Council of Brazil. In this 120h course, our aim is to discuss important subjects about bilingualism, bilingual education, methodology, curriculum, and assessment. I teach Language and Cognition and my very first lesson starts with a quote by Dan Everett:

The greatest technological breakthrough of human beings is language

Dan Everett, TEDx Talk

I thought this would be a fitting start for my group of eager students to (re)consider for a moment the magnitude of the work they do. It also helps everyone rethink the role of language in society and how it is intrinsically connected to how we, humans, have evolved and become more intelligent than any other being on this planet – at least according to our own appraisal.

This blog post looks at five pillars I focused on when teaching this lesson on Brain and Language Evolution. It assumes that there are 5 elements that cannot be dissociated from language learning and must not be neglected in language teaching, even though they might be misunderstood by students and, oftentimes, by teachers themselves. They are:

  1. Grammar
  2. Play
  3. Arts
  4. Storytelling
  5. Reading

History of Language and Brain Development

There are over 7000 languages on this planet. Some are dying out and are expected to become extinct in the next years. Many have already disappeared from the face of the earth. If you look at some of the proposed beliefs to explain our incredible linguistic diversity, you’re bound to come across the biblical passage about the The Tower of Babel and the idea that after the flood, Noah’s descendants became one people with one language who wanted to build a tower to touch the heavens. God decided to confuse their languages and spread them all over the planet.

However, the idea that languages were created – in a relatively short period of time – does not seem to hold water. If we analyze this claim by comparing the tree of languages to the evolutionary tree of life, we’ll find striking similarities. Languages seemed to have evolved just like how every being on this planet evolved from a common ancestor – languages may have evolved from more than one. We can posit that the current configuration of languages is precisely what we’d expect given enough time and geographical isolation – and specialization – according to Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Why have humans developed such incredible linguistic wealth? Why haven’t other animals accomplished this feat? Can we even say that they haven’t? I remember watching an episode of TV series Cosmos hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson on which bees can communicate to their peers with incredible accuracy how to get to a food source by walking in circles and waggling their body inside the hive for everyone to see.

Bees and humans are quite different, though. What about animals that are closer to us from an evolutionary perspective? If you think about other primates, you may want to analyze the interesting case of Kanzi the Bonobo who can use a limited version of sign language and visual cues (on a lexigram) to tell his caregiver Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh what he wants or feels. Most of what he can communicate, though, is connected to immediate needs like what he wants to eat or where he wants to go.

Even though animals can communicate, most linguists would agree that they do not have language. Language has different layers or spheres such as phonetics – human sounds, phonology – sounds of a particular language, morphology – word formation, syntax – phrase/sentence construction, semantics – meaning, pragmatics – meaning in context.

As a matter of fact, there’s evidence to suggest that the very first language homids had was sign language. Since great apes do not have a very sophisticated vocal tract, making them unable to vocalize a wide range of sounds, and based on observations of bonobos, gorilas, and chimpanzees, we can assume that these animals started communicating through body language.

Anthropological and archeological records seem to suggest that the first hominid to speak was Homo erectus. H. erectus has been until this day the longest-living hominid to walk the earth (2.1 million years ago to 300,000 years ago)  and has conquered many geographical locations on the globe (including Europe and Asia, extending on Homo habilis’ feat of conquering most of eastern and southern Africa)

H. erectus was an incredible tool makers and had to be able to build boats to populate the many islands in Indonesia where fossil records were found. The reason why researchers believe they were the first ones to speak is tied to the fact that tool-making technologies had to be passed on to the next generations and communication at sea required more sophisticated symbology. It is also important to note that bipedalism freed H. erectus hands to use gestures more often and that the need to hold tools such as spears may have prompted them to vocalize their warnings and wishes.

Now think for a second about the advantages of being able to communicate efficiently on a range of topics and somehow saving a record of what one has learned. Think about the ability to pass this knowledge to other members of the species. Can you imagine the social and cognitive gains? This knowledge and the skills acquired through this process for hundreds of thousands of years – possibly more than 2 million years – gave humans unprecedented benefits.

Nevertheless, something was needed for this to happen. If hominins were communicating with symbols, simply combining them randomly would have limited the things they could communicate. There had to be a set of rules, shared by other members of the tribe to allow for more complex communication. This thing was grammar

1. Grammar

Any given phrase or sentence produced by animals does not always seem to follow rules. If we look at a bonobo trying to say or sign something, their constructions might be like:

me – banana – me – me – want – banana – me – banana – banana

On the other hand, humans have learned to code language using a sequence that makes sense and that combines different items into novel sentences that can be understood by others. If we think about it, grammar – or at least more advanced grammar – is an important pillar of modern languages and what differentiates us from animals since it gives us rules of how to combine our symbols in a way that makes sense and can be replicated ad infinitum. This is the idea behind recursion – not that recursion is necessary for all human languages.

Let’s not get into the debate over a single universal grammar – or if there are other types of grammar – but we can certainly claim that humans have reached an unparalled ability to combine linguistic elements into constructions that can be passed on to other generations and create ever more complex language.

As a teacher you must have heard the following from one – or more – of your students:

I just want conversation classes. I don’t want – or need – to learn grammar

Some student

The problem here is that grammar is embedded in language. We can’t really teach language without grammar. What we can do, however, is to not teach grammar explicitly. Your students might not benefit from knowing the names or labels ascribed to different verb tenses for instance. They do however need to know how to use them and understand that apparently, without grammar, there’s no language really.

2. Play

With many parents watching remote classes due to COVID-19, I get a comment quite a lot. They normally say something like:

That teacher only plays with the kids. He doesn’t teach them anything

Some parent

That really shows how little importance they give to such a fundamental activity in human history. We can see play even in other animals – I certainly witness it daily with my two cats – and that sure means something. Play is the basis of social interaction and serves as a simulation for a number of tasks animals will have to carry out throughout their lives in order to survive. Hunting, escaping from predation, testing their body limits, communicating and negotiating. In humans, as Maria Montessori put it:

Play is the work of the child

Maria Montessori

When we see kids playing, we realize that they’re sharing intention, communicating their feelings and thoughts, setting up goals and rules, engaging in physical and mental activity, collaborating and competing, analyzing others’ behavior, making predictions and decisions and more. As humans evolved, we can be sure that play played a vital role in how we developed language and, thus, our brains.

3. Arts

It is quite common to hear families who have children enrolled in an English course complain about how much kids draw, paint, and dance. If we think about how nature expresses intention and sends messages, we might think about how male peacocks show off their amazingly colored feathers to impress females, or how a type of puffer fish draws intricate circle patterns on the seafloor, or even how some whales sing, and other birds dance to attract the opposite sex or signal danger. Humans are no different. In fact, we have been able to take artistic expression to the next level.

Think about it. There’s evidence that humans could express themselves artistically for at least 40,000 years (cave paintings and sculptures). Many thousands of years before writing – which wasn’t invented until around 7,000 – 6,000 BC – humans used arts to record their stories, their knowledge, dreams, wishes, and daily lives.

Some experts claim that cave paintings, such as the ones found in Lascaux, France are so complex and intelligently designed that cavemen actually invented the movie theater. The projections on the wall as researchers enter the cave with a torch are most impressive and they move telling a story.

4. Storytelling

Again, telling stories doesn’t bode well with some school managers, teachers, and families. Sitting in circles and listening to the teacher read a big book and use props to bring a story to life seem like a waste of time to many. However, we must ask ourselves? How were humans able to secure language from generation to generation without a writing system?

H. sapiens, for instance, is believed to have been around for at least 200,000 years – maybe up to 400,000 years. That means that for the better part of our time on this planet, we couldn’t have kept language alive except for speaking it, and storytelling and mythology certainly played a role.

Gathering around the fire to exchange stories about the day, to tell someone about a new location with fresh fruit, to plan how to get a mammoth the next day, or to wonder about the stars and how it all started gave humans the ability to learn socially like no other animal. It created culture and shared values that allowed us to accumulate knowledge like never before. Arts and storytelling are fundamental mechanisms through which humans have explored and surpassed their creative capacity and further developed language.

5. Reading

I once watched an interview given by Carl Sagan in which he said that reading a book was like having a conversation with people from past centuries, dead for even thousands of years. Once humans were able to write down their ideas, we started building on the experience of others and our shared knowledge grew exponentially.

We can learn languages by reading them. Experts today might not know what some languages sounded like but they have deciphered their secrets and can translate texts in Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, Latin, Old Aramaic, Old Norse and other dead languages. We can also learn about how people taught and learned languages many years ago.

Literacy certainly develops cognition as well. It gives humans access to a wealth of knowledge and the capacity to understand symbology and develop abstract thinking to unprecedented levels. Extensive reading, for example, is connected with benefits that surpass students’ reading ability. It’s also related to increasing vocabulary, developing writing, and improving oral fluency.

Conclusion

Humans are animals. We’re primates and we’ve evolved from a common ape ancestor. As any other animal, our survival depended on some key elements that brought us here today. Moving, hunting, learning quickly from nature, passing on new knowledge to other members of our tribe, building knowledge collectively, creating culture – at least in our case. Our unmatched ability to communicate gave us the edge over other animals. Without language, it’s safe to assume that we wouldn’t have gotten this far.

Any educational system or – more specifically – language course that neglects the pillars on which we were able to build a solid foundation to evolve is deeply misguided. We must strike a balance between novel demands and base our teaching and learning on what has helped us evolve.

There is no modern language without grammar. Let your students understand that. Tell them that grammar is what allows humans to construct sentences and talk to one another through shared rules at a highly complex level.

Kids – and adults alike – need play to simulate real-life situations, learn to collaborate, set goals, rules, and develop empathy. Games require focus, negotiation skills, they’re engaging and memorable. Let’s use them more often.

Last I checked, teaching English fell under the category of language arts. Despite the movement pushing a STEM-oriented curriculum, we need to make sure schools put the “A” back where it belongs. Particularly for YLEs, when literacy is still being developed, we should see more music, drawing, painting, and acting in classes.

Storytelling has been responsible for keeping language and culture alive. We connect through stories. We relate to the characters and we learn from them. One of the most pleasing human endeavors is to gather around a fire or in a room and listen to funny, touching, fantastic stories.

Reading is a powerful tool. Sticking to the books without resorting to tales, novels, poems – literature in general – means missing an opportunity. Students can benefit a great deal from reading fiction and non-fiction books, blogs, magazines and the like.

It seems to me that these five pillars have given our species the key to unlock our cognitive potential like no other animal. We must embrace them as educators and reflect what they can tell us about who are and what it means to be human. Language is really a tool that allows us to see, interact with, and understand the world. It’s our most powerful weapon. Just think about major setbacks in our History. Authorities banning play, burning books, alienating the masses through language, censoring arts. When we get away from those pillars, apparently that’s when things are going wrong.

References

Corballis, M. C. (2002). From hand to mouth: The origins of language. Princeton University Press.

Everett, D. (2017). How language began: The story of humanity’s greatest invention. Profile Books.

Howard-Jones, P. (2018). Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How You Got To Be So Smart... Routledge.

Schoenemann, P.T. (2012)Evolution of brain and language IN: HOFMAN, M. A., FALK, D. (Eds). Progress in Brain Research, Elsevier, v. 195, p. 443-459, 2012

Sousa, A. M., Meyer, K. A., Santpere, G., Gulden, F. O., & Sestan, N. (2017). Evolution of the human nervous system function, structure, and development. Cell170(2), 226-247.

Published by

André Hedlund

André Hedlund is a Chevening Scholar from Brazil, MSc in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in the UK, and a pedagogical consultant for National Geographic Learning. He has been an EFL teacher for over 15 years and has worked both as an academic coordinator and a CamLa (Cambridge and Michigan Language Assessments) examiner at a Brazilian Binational Center. Currently, he is the president of an ONG called Partners of the Americas Goiás and the representative of the Brazilian TESOL's Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group in the Midwest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s