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Is it Possible to Create a Universal Language?
Language is a globalised phenomenon that has evolved over time for humans to be able to communicate with the rest of the population via spoken, written or gestured language. It has been heavily debated whether the first means of language was through gestures rather than spoken communication. Looking at this from an evolutionary prospective, gesture may have been the first form of language. Animals use gestures to communicate; chimpanzees will point and smack their chests to gain the attention of their peers. This is a globalised form of communication as it is understandable worldwide even without context. Dunbar (1993) argued that language evolved from gestures to verbal communication to be more time efficient when bonding with peers. Spoken language has then evolved for us to understand spatial relations and to understand the conversation within new social environments when it is not your native language. Language also has the potential to enhance cognition and be optimal for everyday needs, as language is vital for humans to live a normal life. Language can be culturally specific as many cultures will need to adapt their language to the social environment they are in, which could include having multiple words for one object as their everyday needs require it.
Linguistic diversity plays an important part when looking at how languages expand cross-culturally. This can be seen in the type of vocabulary used, whether they have multiple words for descriptions or if their language completely rids itself of words and letters that other languages so heavily rely on. Languages have been evolving over thousands of years and each language is different for a multitude of reasons. One reason is the environment you are in, as if a language is spoken in an environment that has a very dry climate (desert based countries) it is harder to produce a lexical tone (known as the rise and fall in pitch between words) as the dry air can hinder the vocal control needed to make distinctions between words (Lupyan & Dale, 2016). Everett, Blasi and Roberts (2014) state that languages that have a more complex tonality cannot develop fully in areas that have a very cold climate. This can affect an individual’s understanding of spoken language because a lack of vocal control when communicating can lead to a misunderstanding of what has been said. Therefore, this shows that language can only be perfect for cognition and everyday needs when it is specific for that environment. If it was to be applied worldwide, to countries of different climates and environments, this could hinder cognitive performance due to the lexical tone present. Another reason why there is language diversity is due to that fact that many languages are spoken in areas with salient topography (mountains and large areas of water), so individuals who live in this environment will geographically refer to these when describing locations. Whereas some languages will refer to speaker-centred coding (left and right) when referring to a location (Lupyan & Dale, 2016). Therefore, describing a location via a landmark is not always an option if the environment does not have such landmarks, so this shows that a perfect language cannot be created as each language is so diverse, trying to create a perfect worldwide language could hinder cognitive performance and effect everyday needs.
Being able to understand how language is used in an everyday basis is vital because humans need to communicate with each other when communication cannot be relied on just by gestures. Languages spoken by a vast number of people have less complex morphology suggesting that the language is easier to learn. However, languages that are spoken by smaller populations are seen as harder to learn because it has a more complex morphology (Lupyan & Dale, 2016). L2 speakers are individuals who can fluently speak another language that they have learnt but is not their native language (Dale & Lupyan, 2012). The Linguistic Niche Hypothesis explains how a language adapts to the social environment it is used in (Lupyan & Dale, 2016). Many non-native speakers learn through imitation, so they will grasp onto words that are easier to learn to help to make their communication with others easier. Dale and Lupyan (2012) investigated whether exposure to non-native speakers whilst learning English, would make individuals more likely to prefer regularized word forms compared to individuals who were not exposed to non-native speakers. Ninety-five participants were asked their opinions on word forms such as lit/lighted, snuck/sneaked, sped/speeded and bent/bended. They were presented with identical sentences with both irregular and regular word forms, such as ‘They sneaked around/They snuck around’ and had to rate the acceptability of the verb used on a scale of one to five (Dale & Lupyan, 2012). Their level of education and social environment including what proportion of their friends were non-native English speakers throughout their childhood were accounted for. Results found that there are a higher percentage of non-native speakers who prefer words with regularised suffixes such as speeded and sneaked (Dale & Lupyan, 2012). This provides support for the linguistic niche hypothesis as it suggests that if an individual grows up in an area with non-native speakers of English, the more likely they are to use the ‘ed’ version because it is easier to learn. This can be seen in populations that are learning English in areas with a low socioeconomical status (Hoff, 2013). If an individual grew up in a poor area, they may not have received the education needed to fully learn language in their social environment (especially if it is not their native tongue). This would have led to relying on imitation via their parents and peers who may have learnt their language in the same way. Therefore, showing that a perfect language cannot be created to enhance cognition and be optimal for everyday needs.
Over the years evidence has found that language has the potential to enhance cognition. No two languages are the same (Sapir, 1929). One reason for this is because some languages will have more categories of words than others simply because they need them for everyday needs, specifically colour. Colour categorisation is an important one as it is used to describe the environment around us. The universal colour spectrum is seen as a three-dimensional shape due to the hue, lightness and saturations within the categories (Regier, Kay & Ketharpal, 2006). Russia has no distinctive word for blue as they only distinguish between light and dark colours, such as ‘goluboy’ (light blue) and ‘siniy’ (dark blue). English speakers do not care about colour categories as the colour will always be the same to them, despite the colour on the spectrum ranging from dark to light, unlike Russian speakers who are influenced by colour categories. Winawer et al. (2007) investigated English and Russian speakers in a colour discrimination task using blue squares in a triad formation that were on the colour border of siniy/goluboy. Participants had to identify as quickly and as accurately as possible which of the two bottom squares matched the top square. Twenty different variations of the Russian siniy/goluboy colour range were used. For English speakers, all the colours used within the trials fell into the same linguistic category of blue. Winawer et al. (2007) found that Russian speakers were faster at distinguishing between two colours when they fell into different linguistic categories in Russian (either siniy and goluboy) than when they fell into the same linguistic category (either both siniy or both goluboy). It was also found that English speakers were not affected by either of the colour boundaries. Therefore, this shows that a perfect language can exist within a specific culture as they have optimised their language to suit their everyday needs as Russians need to be able to distinguish between light and dark as that is part of their social environment. English speakers do not necessarily need to be able to distinguish between shades of blue like Russian speakers do. Therefore, this shows that language can enhance cognition as Russian speakers were faster when distinguishing between colours than English speakers because they use specific terminology more often in the everyday lives. This shows that language can be perfect for some cultures, but not worldwide.
In addition, the categorisation of objects within spatial relations can be seen to enhance cognition. English speakers will use ‘in’ and ‘on’ when describing spatial relationships (‘in’ the box, ‘on’ the box), whereas Korean speakers will use ‘kkita’ (tight fit) and ‘nohta’ (loose fit) (McDonough, Choi and Mandler, 2003).Some languages will categorise spatial relationships differently to others which can explain why people of different languages can be linguistically sensitive to differences in space.McDonough et al. (2003) investigated the containment of objects using nonverbal, preferential-looking tasks with infants and adults who were fluent in either English or Korean. Participants watched three videos of objects that were of the same spatial relationship of tight fit or loose fit containment, and then a fourth video that was either of the same or a different relation that had been previously seen.Results show that all the infants were sensitive to the spatial relations when the video changed from tight fit to loose fit or loose fit to tight fit, whereas adults would lose sensitivity of the containment state if it was not supported by their language (McDonough et al., 2003).Korean speakers would focus on the interlocking of the objects (whether it is tight or loose) as this was more important to them when choosing how to categorise objects. This shows that it does not matter whether infants are learning English or Korean as they are sensitive to the difference when the spatial relation changes from a tight fit to loose fit or loose fit to tight fit. However, Korean adults are also sensitive to the change in spatial relations because it is due to the use of their language, so they notice the change in the relations even in non-linguistic tasks.English speakers do not notice this change as they are not linguistically sensitive because they have learnt that English does not use this linguistic distinction. Therefore, this shows that language can only be perfect when the language used follows this linguistic idea as anything that changes or alters our understanding can cause us to be sensitive to the language and alter our cognition.
However, spatial relations can also be looked at in terms of absolute versus relative perspectives. Guugu Yimithirr (GY) speakers describe spatial locations using cardinal directions of North, East, South and West such as ‘the lamp is north of the sofa’ (Levinson, 1997). Levinson (1997) explains that GY speakers will use an absolute perspective, whereas European countries will use relative perspective for spatial descriptions. Participants were shown a line up of objects facing north and told to remember this before moving to another room facing south and asked to arrange the objects as seen before. Results showed that most of the participants interpreted the order of the objects as relative and with relative distances between them when recalling the position of objects from memory (Levinson, 1997). The other participants arranged the line facing east in an absolute order. Levinson (1997) states that this could be because we see ourselves as the centre (for cardinal directions) to describe where the object is, so this is relative to us, but it is not relative to other individuals who are viewing it a different angle as we are biologically proposed to conceive space relatively (Levinson, 1997). Therefore, this shows that a perfect language cannot be created as even when European countries refer to objects in a relative form; some do not which would hinder their ability to understand locations based on descriptions and therefore not being optimal for their everyday needs.
The use of language has the potential to alter our perceptions and our memories of events. Specific words can lead people to answer in a bias way as the language used has prompted this. Leading questions can cause changes in our memory cognitions as it can make individuals believe their versions of events are wrong. Loftus and Palmer (1974) investigated whether the language used to describe an event would alter how participants remembered what the event. One hundred and fifty participants watched a film about a car accident and answered questions about what they saw. Fifty participants were asked ‘how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’. Another 50 participants were asked ‘how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?’, whilst the final 50 were not asked about the car speeds. Participants came back a week later and were asked the question ‘did you see any broken glass?’. Results show that 16 of the participants who had been asked whether the cars had smashed into each other rather than hit were more likely to say ‘yes’ to seeing broken glass, despite there not being any broken glass shown in the film (Loftus & Palmer, 1974). This effects an individual’s cognitive performance because it inhibits their ability to recall events accurately as the language used has distorted their memories, in turn effecting cognition. With language having this effect on cognition, this is affecting everyday life especially in terms of eyewitness testimonies as the language used has affected their memory of the event. Therefore, this shows that a perfect language cannot be created because if the context in which the language is used has the ability to alter memories, including seeing things they did not see (such as broken glass); this can cause anxiety for the individual, therefore affecting their everyday needs.
Based on the evidence provided above, it shows that universally, a perfect language cannot be created to be optimal for everyday needs and cognition enhancement as there are multiple factors that influence language development. As each language that currently exists is so diverse, it is almost impossible to create a ‘perfect’ language worldwide. However, language can be perfect for an individual culture in terms of their social environment if they have been taught the language enough to understand social contexts. If we tried to create a perfect language worldwide, this would put many cultures and environments at a disadvantage because the western and southern hemispheres rely on language differently to each other as some languages have more categories for words than others, some rely on more complex morphology whilst others rely on differences in spatial relations to be able to be able to function properly as a language within that environment. Therefore, a perfect language cannot be created as whilst language can enhance cognition and be optimal for everyday needs, the way language is used can hinder cognition and can alter how we remember past events which can affect everyday life.
- Dale, R., & Lupyan, G. (2012). Understanding the origins of morphological diversity: The lingustic niche hypothesis. Advances in Complex Systems, 15(3-4), 1-17.
- Dunbar, R. (1993). Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans. Behavioral And Brain Sciences, 16(4), 681-735.
- Everett, C., Blasi, D., & Roberts, S. (2015). Climate, vocal folds, and tonal languages: Connecting the physiological and geographic dots. Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, 112(5), 1322-1327.
- Hoff, E. (2013). Interpreting the early language trajectories of children from low-SES and language minority homes: Implications for closing achievement gaps. Developmental Psychology, 49(1), 4-14.
- Levinson, S. (1997). Language and cognition: The cognitive consequences of spatial description in Guugu Yimithirr. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 7(1), 98-131.
- Loftus, E., & Palmer, J. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13(5), 585-589.
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- McDonough, L., Choi, S., & Mandler, J. (2003). Understanding spatial relations: Flexible infants, lexical adults. Cognitive Psychology, 46(3), 229-259.
- Regier, T., Kay, P., & Khetarpal, N. (2007). Color naming reflects optimal partitions of color space. Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, 104(4), 1436-1441.
- Sapir, E. (1929). The status of linguistics as a science. Language, 5(4), 207-214.
- Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M., Wu, L., Wade, A., & Boroditsky, L. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, 104(19), 7780-7785.
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