Afterwords: Evolution of Language Series

Sophie Adelman, Cofounder & CEO · Tue, 30 Aug 2022

From the birth of the English language to bilingualism, this Series delved deeply into the uniquely human condition of language and illuminated why and how we communicate with each other.

Language is a unifying human condition.  Our understanding of language begins even before we say our first word with babies being able to distinguish different sounds and languages almost from birth. From a child's first word, language acquisition continues throughout their lives.

In this Series of Talks, we invited brilliant leaders in the language and linguistics field to share their knowledge and expertise with us and to answer our burning questions about how language and language learning evolves.

Read on to find out what we learned.

How do languages evolve?

Professor Simon Kirby opened this series by taking us back to the origin and purpose of language.   As Simon explained, understanding the evolution of language is at the heart of understanding human progress because being able to create complex societies, and ever more complex technologies, relies on our ability to network our intelligence - in other words, share knowledge and ideas about the world and learn from other people through language.  All other species and living things communicate but with language we can communicate about anything in an open ended way; we aren’t limited in what we talk about or the ideas we share and consider. We are the only species on Earth that can do this.

Simon went on to explain that languages are made up patterns of words that our brains can learn to interpret.  Each word that has meaning - a morpheme - creates a picture in our brain, and putting these morphemes together tells us something new or important about the world.  Human brains have evolved to spot these patterns and we can interpret and use them to communicate with others and share knowledge.

In his Garden Talk, Simon showed that languages evolve in similar ways and by studying many languages and using computer algorithms to show language evolution in a lab environment, we can understand how human communication works at its most fundamental level.  By applying these computer algorithms to the study of emerging languages, like new sign languages, we can show that even today, language develops using similar patterns and this is due to cultural transmission and the human need and desire to want to learn from each other.

But the question still remains, why are humans the only species to have developed the ability to use language?

Member Questions answered by Simon:

  • Is language acquisition different for people learning a second language? Because it's not passed down from generation to generation but rather it's studied in classrooms. Are those people involved in language evolution?

  • What do you think of J.R.R. Tolkien's invented languages?

  • There is this notion that the language we speak has a direct impact on the way we perceive reality and the world, which is something I can relate with. What are your observations or your opinion about the idea that people speaking different languages perceive the world differently?

  • Is language evolution partially caused by mistakes/errors in original usage?

  • Does written language slow down or speed up the evolution of spoken language? In what ways does it affect evolution of language?

  • How can we be certain that for example wales or dolphins do not communicate stories?

  • Do languages become less complex or more complex over time? In what way are languages "complex"?

  • What was the thinking process for creating Esperanto and what did we learn from it?

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Is our language the key to our past?

John Gallagher loves to go back to the early modern period - the time of Shakespeare, global exploration, the Renaissance and the Reformation - to find out how the world we live in today was shaped by our past.

In this Garden Talk, /history/early-modern-english-and-migrationJohn painted a picture of a cosmopolitan, multilingual and international society in Elizabethan England and showed how migration and trade from the continent to the British Isles, created complexity and uncertainty around the use and development of the English language.  English at the time was not the language we hear and read today and its evolution was shaped by words, phrases and dialects intermingling both at home and abroad.

John's talk focused on the role of refugees, from the Huguenots to the Dutch Protestants who fled religious persecution in their homelands, in shaping the language and society of their adopted homeland, as well as the role the government played in importing expert cloth craftspeople and their families to improve England’s failing cloth industry.

All this change in society’s make up, combined with the Reformation reducing the use of Latin as a shared language, created a moment of ‘linguistic anxiety’ for many in England.  There was a question of whether English was up to the job of replacing Latin and what the boundaries of English were at a time when people were borrowing words from other languages.

Despite being a ‘linguistic golden age’, John reveals some of the challenges the English language faced as it evolved during the early modern age and the role migrants, refugees and local people had in shaping its evolution.

Member Questions answered by John:

  • Nowadays in Italy, we are worried that we are using too many English terms in our language (e.g. terms like computer, meeting, webcam etc) just like what English people were worried about many years ago. 

Should we be worried about this or should we embrace these English language terms as our own?

  • How did these 16th century migrants use to communicate with locals at early stage? was there any sort of universal language

  • Given the attitude/sense that French and Italian were becoming prestigious language, what was the attitude of the English to those native speakers coming to England? Were they held in high esteem (dependent presumably on social class) or was it a feeling of suspicion or even jealousy?

  • What impact, if any, did the invention of the printing press have on the development of the English language?

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Can you be perfectly bilingual?

Professor Antonella Sorace is perfectly positioned to talk about bilingualism.  As a multilingual herself and an expert on language acquisition and bilingualism, she brings incredible insights from across neuroscience, sociology, linguistics and psychology to how people learn and communicate in multiple languages.

In this Garden Talk, Antonella bust some myths about language learning explaining that there is no such thing as being perfectly bilingual (or even monolingual) and that while it is true that children acquire language most easily, you can become bilingual even as an adult.  The main reason it’s hard to become bilingual as an adult is because we are so busy and have other things to distract us from language learning, whereas a child can focus communication and language learning.

Being bilingual doesn’t make you more intelligent but it does create changes in your brain that can make it easier for you to put yourself in other people’s shoes (social cognition) and better focused attention.

Given almost half the world is bilingual, understanding the benefits of learning a second or third language has important consequences for individuals and society. Antonella’s insights into her research on bilingualism were completely fascinating and left us all considering adding learning another language to our plans for the coming year.

Member Questions answered by Antonella:

  • If parents speak different languages, should they be speaking consistently in their native language to their children?

  • What are the benefits and the challenges of knowing more than one language?

  • Is there any known difference in the structure of the brain between a bilingual and monolingual?

  • You mentioned that bilingual adults can better focus and switch from one task to another, do you think that they could use language learning as a way to treat adult attention disorders like ADHD?

  • Is the ability to learn a second language (as an adult) a function of intelligence, or are the two things unconnected?

  • I keep forgetting words and phrases in my native language after learning a second one. What could be the reason?

  • Does knowing more than one language have a benefit for preventing dementia?

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Curious to learn more?

Explore the Series on-demand now.

Explore the collection

How do languages evolve?  From the origins of language to bilingualism, this series journeys into the mysteries of this uniquely human trait and the power it has to change our world.

Is our language the key to our past?

Dr John Gallagher

Travel, mobility, and migration were instrumental in making Early modern England a multilingual landscape. But when did the English start speaking English and, how confident were early speakers in the scope of this fast-evolving language?

How do languages evolve?

Professor Simon Kirby

Language sets humankind apart from other species. Even our closest primate relatives haven't developed the same ability to acquire & use language. Why are humans the only species with language and how did language evolve?

Can life be both wonderful and terrible at the same time?

Prof. Shannon Murray

The modern world is increasingly polarised; we see things in black and white. How can Shakespeare teach us to hold two conflicting ideas in our heads simultaneously?

Could anyone become perfectly bilingual?

Antonella Sorace

More than half the world speaks two or more languages fluently. And yet being bilingual is a label often reserved for native speakers who learn multiple languages as children. Can you both 'be' and 'become' bilingual?