Frau hinter Pfeiler

Total Immersion in the River Jordan

Both humans and animals have the innate ability to learn languages or to use a repertoire of sounds for specific purposes. But the amount of information our respective brains have to process is quite different.

Text: Thomas Gull
Translation: Caitlin Stephens


The little marmoset monkeys in the Brazilian rainforest and the human babies in the nursery both babble and burble. The babbling sounds we make as babies are our first attempts to communicate verbally with the world around us. Before experimenting with sounds, we listen carefully and smile occasionally. When we start babbling, we are trying to join in with the conversation. Okay, so maybe no-one understands us and our caregivers gaze down at us adoringly but uncomprehendingly. But that teaches us two things. Firstly: Babbling is not going to cut it if we really want to be understood. And secondly: I communicate therefore I am. Because one thing is certain – when babies babble, they get noticed.

Being noticed may well be an evolutionary biological function of babbling, because babies and young marmosets need to make sure they aren’t forgotten about. Making a noise is a surefire way to attract the adults’ attention. In terms of learning, babbling is primarily a way to practice articulating and to imitate what we hear. “Babies don’t actually start to understand sounds until around the ninth month,” says linguist Sabine Stoll, who researches how children acquire their first language.

The professor of comparative linguistics at UZH works in the NCCR Evolving Language, where she and behavioral biologist Simon Townsend are conducting research into how the environment influences language acquisition in human and ape infants. They are looking at questions such as: How do interactions with the environment, for example with parents or siblings, shape language development? And: How do infants learn to interpret signals such as facial expressions and gestures, and what role does context play when learning to decode meaning?

Communication is as essential for us humans as it is for many other highly evolved animals. That’s why these animals have also developed simple forms of language. It follows that we and other animals have an innate capacity to learn language or at least are born with a repertoire of sounds that we can put to specific use. However, our human brains must be able to process a vastly greater amount of information in order to learn the three basic elements that language is made up of – structure, sounds and meaning.

In the course of history, thousands of human languages have evolved. Many have been lost, but even today there are still around 7,000. We have the cognitive abilities to acquire any one of them, even those which are incredibly complex, such as the Nepalese language Chintang with its 4,800 verb forms, or the Archi language from the Caucasus with 1.5 million verb forms. We can learn all of them, at least as our first language – i.e. if we are born in a culture speaking that language or are immersed in it as a child – thanks to our brain, which is incredibly flexible in the first few years, and our formidable memory.

But how do we learn a language if our first iterations of it are still incomprehensible babble? Language acquisition, briefly summarized, requires four “i”s: Immersion, interpretation, interaction and imitation. The combination of these factors enables us to learn even languages that are grammatically highly complex. “These include for example the Athabascan languages, a widespread indigenous language family in North America,” says Sabine Stoll. “One of these languages, Navajo, was used as an uncrackable code in the Second World War.”

Patterns in the puree

The immersion begins from day one: “Babies’ immersion in language is like a baptism by total submersion in the river Jordan,” says Sabine Stoll. As babies and toddlers, we are surrounded by language. “A child hears millions of words in the first three to four years of life.” The art, or more precisely the cognitive feat, is to filter out components such as words or sentences from the torrent of sounds that come at us from a multitude of mouths. We have to interpret what we hear, a cacophony of noise that at first sounds like a verbal representation of our first foods, a mushed-up puree of sound.

But amid the jumbled puree there are patterns, and we humans have an innate ability to recognize them. This ability is the foundation stone of our stupendous talent for learning languages. Small children constantly analyze – unconsciously – the linguistic input from the world around them and make sense of it. “Through processing millions of utterances, children learn a great deal about the regularity of language,” says Sabine Stoll. “In the first year of life alone, a child encounters the patterns in the language innumerable times.”

The greater and more varied the input a child gets, the more material they have to work with. But the quality is also important, stresses Sabine Stoll. By that she means the way in which the child experiences the language: “It’s pointless to sit a child in front of the TV and hope they will learn Hindi, for example,” says the linguist. “Children require the interpersonal relationships, the interaction with parents or siblings.” When we learn languages, we engage with our environment and interpret it. That includes things like the body language and facial expressions of our conversation partner. This interaction – the third “i” – ensures that we can constantly refine and adapt our interpretation of what we hear.

A prerequisite for understanding what the other person is saying and what they mean by it is called the “theory of mind”. The theory describes the ability of placing oneself in the mind of another, of inferring what another person is thinking. Humans have a greater ability to do that than any other animal, although it is today thought that great apes also have a simple form of theory of mind.

Tree, puu, zuhaitz

The second “i”, interpretation, includes recognizing symbols and linking them with meaning. Thus we can link the written word “tree” with the tall object that we see outside in the forest. That is essential, because our language is arbitrary – meanings and words are randomly assigned. Different languages use different words to describe the same thing – tree as arbre, Baum, puu or zuhaitz, to give a few examples from European languages. Animals are also able to link sounds with meanings. Meerkats, for example, have different calls to warn of enemies in the air or on the ground. Apes or birds such as the pied babbler also use different alarm calls in a similar way. But the linguistic repertoire of animals is usually quite limited. Apes and meerkats have three types of calls: Alarm calls, food calls and calls to keep in contact. These calls can be adapted to the situation, but unlike humans, animals cannot create new words. “Our language use is much more productive and creative,” says UZH behavioral biologist Simon Townsend. “In English for example there are 40 phonemes (sounds), and we can combine them to make more than 200,000 words.”

Learning from older animals

Ultimately we learn a language by imitating what we hear, which brings us to the fourth “i”. Later, when we learn to read and write, we also imitate what we see. We have now crossed over to the other side of language acquisition, the production of language. We learn to speak and to write through trial and error – by imitating what we hear and if necessary correcting ourselves.

Language research in animals has shown that apes or meerkats, for example, learn when to use certain calls through feedback from older members of the group. But the crucial thing is that the repertoire of sounds is innate: Apes and meerkats are not vocal learners. That means they cannot learn any sounds that are not already part of the linguistic repertoire of their species. Alongside humans, there are a few other animals that are capable of learning new sounds, including whales, seals, sea lions, elephants and certain birds. In this regard they are closer to us than our nearest relatives.

Even compared to animal languages that have developed some elements of human language, our language is much more complex in all three dimensions – structure, sounds and meaning. It is accordingly more complex and time-consuming for us to learn a language. In fact, it’s an amazing feat. But we can and we do, starting from the moment we are welcomed into the world.