Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Essays on Early Language: 1, Language - Is it what makes us human?

The next few blogposts: 'Essays in Early Language' explore some foundational questions   that help us to understand the nature of communication difficulties in modern society.  These questions may often be overlooked, or taken as a given without much analysis, but they are key to understanding the importance of language in human communication, what can go wrong and the implications for individuals if things do go wrong. 

Whilst I have been meaning to post the essays for some time, I was inspired to share the first of these in response to a discussion on Twitter about the claim that "Language is what makes us human".  This is a claim that has been made about language in the past, perhaps most audaciously by Pinker (1994).  It is a debatable claim, for example, I have also heard friends describe the use of fire as being our most fundamentally human characteristic, and one could cite the complex communication systems of other species in defence of the argument that we are not so unique after all, although this factor is robustly defended by Tomasello (2008). Even considering these arguments, there is no denying that language is pretty special, and worthy of being a major player amongst fundamental human characteristics.  In my PhD research I examined Language Learning Impairment and its impact on individuals.  The starting point was to address the question of exactly how important the ability to communicate using language is for individuals. Is it merely a desirable practical skill, or is it at the very core of what it means to be human?

This first essay; 'Language - is it what makes us human?' tackles this question by considering how necessary language is for humans for healthy living and functioning in society. Rather than debating the question of whether language is the one characteristic that stands out from others (such as use of fire) as defining the human organism, however, the argument is made that, although individuals who's language skills are impaired are certainly not any less human, that language is a fundamental human ability that significantly affects our ability to fully participate in many aspects of social life and be humans together.

The argument for the fundamental need for language in modern society in this essay is made considering three factors.  First, through a consideration of the origins of language and its use amongst humans universally.  Second, a case is made for the increased demand for language skills in modern society, highlighting further the fundamental need for language competence.  Third and final, the recognition of language as a basic human need in law and international policy is examined. Communication needs are considered within the context of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and examples of national interpretations are illustrated through UK based policy and law. 

Origins and universality of language

Evolution of language in humans
As primates, human beings are biologically adapted for social life (Joffe, 1997; Tomasello, 2007).  In his summary of social adaptation, Winston (2002) reported that the ability to function within groups has enabled humans to increase their capacity for passing on learned skills and knowledge, and for engaging in group activities including finding food and tool use, and that the primary skill that enables these functions is the ability to communicate.  As part of this biological adaptation for social and cultural life, humans have a highly developed communication system, the most complex feature of which, by far, is language.  

The question of how humans evolved to use language and whether language structure itself is a biologically evolved adaptation, or a learned cultural process emerging from other social adaptations continues to be debated (Bickerton, 1992; Fitch, Hauser, & Chomsky, 2005; Pinker, 1994; Pinker, 2002; Sampson, 1997; Tomasello, 2008) and will not be covered in detail in this essay. For the purposes of understanding to what degree language is important to our species it is only necessary to state that it is widely agreed that human language is in some degree related to and dependent on our biological and evolutionary makeup (Sampson, 1997). Human language enables us to request and offer help, inform and share intentions and experiences (Tomasello, 2008).  Not only is the ability to communicate using language beneficial to humans for all these reasons, it is in fact expected between conspecifics, and humans who do not understand or cooperate according to the underlying purposes of human communication (including cooperation, altruism) may find themselves ostracised from society if they are not supported (Tomasello, 2008).

Universality of language
Human language use is universal (Pinker, 1994).  Whilst across the world we all speak different languages, all normally developing humans acquire some form of spoken or signed language. Even individuals raised without a linguistic model (for example deaf children born to non-signing parents, or slaves removed from their own linguistic environment and therefore only using pidgin versions of a language) have been reported to generate full linguistic competence within a single generation (Bickerton, 1992; Pinker, 1994).  Whilst there are limitations in these early anthropological studies (Pinker, 1994; Sampson, 1997), it appears that for all cultures worldwide language use is a robust human skill and full linguistic competence develops quickly between individuals, even in adverse circumstances.  Language use appears therefore to be a fundamental feature of what it means to be human.

Increased demands for language use in the modern world

Reduction of manual labour
It has been proposed that in the twenty-first century the ability to communicate has become an even more vital skill for participation in the developed world.  Several authors have highlighted that as society has moved towards advances in technology, the demand for traditional manual labour has decreased, (Hart & Risley, 1995; Law, Reilley, & Snow, 2013; Ruben, 2000).  As Law et al. (2013) stated; “the more sophisticated, the better educated and the more automated or digitalised the society becomes, the greater the shift from the blue collar manual employment towards white collar ‘communication’ focused jobs” (p. 488).  Ruben (2000) carried out a survey of employment in the USA which found that labour that would be considered to be manual had reduced from 80% of the workforce in 1900 to 37% of the workforce in 2000.  He also postulated that even the work that is considered to be blue collar manual labour in 2000 would require employees to have certain cognitive skills, for example in process management or logistics.  These skills rely to a degree on language abilities.

The need for language in a digitalised society
It is also noteworthy that the increasing dependence on the Internet for participation in society places demands on an individual’s communication skills.  Livingstone (2002) highlights three different kinds of interactions that take place on the internet; user to user interactions, that is, computer aided interactions such as email, text and chat environments, user to document, such as access to information through hyperlinks and user to system, such as takes place in gaming environments.  The internet is now used for so many aspects of life; participation in social life for forming friendships and relationships (e.g. McKenna, Green, & Gleason, 2002), access to information for the purposes of health (e.g. Norman & Skinner, 2006), education (e.g. Wright, 2010), employment (e.g. Kuhn & Skuterud, 2000) and for leisure (e.g Sanchez-Navarro & Aranda, 2012).  The ability to interact in these three ways using the internet is now considered to be a basic skill (Skills for Life Network, 2015).  There is even some evidence of an attempt to measure social status in part according to level of social networking on the internet (Savage et al., 2013).  It is proposed in this essay that the ability to take full advantage of all aspects of a digitalised society is largely dependent on an individual’s communication and language skills, and that those with speech, language and communication needs are further disadvantaged.

Global recognition of communication as a human right

Given the importance of these highly developed communication skills through language in the evolution of humans and the universality of language use, it is not surprising, therefore, that the ability to communicate effectively (and arguably, thus, to use language) is considered globally to be vital to an individual’s health and wellbeing and is recognised internationally to be a basic human need. 

Declaration of communication rights and human rights
In 2014 the International Communication Project published a universal declaration of communication rights (International Communication Project, 2014).  This declaration was developed by its member organisations across the globe, that is, the speech and language therapy professional bodies of the UK, Canada, Ireland, USA, Australia and New Zealand.  This declaration is not representative of the world as a whole as it represents only the interested profession of English speaking developed world.  It also does not have the legal gravitas of the Universal declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948) which was agreed by fifty member states and now forms the basis of human rights law.  The communication rights declaration does, however, highlight that the ability to communicate affects significant aspects of life that are referenced in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948).  For example, the declaration of communication rights states that barriers to communication affect an individual’s ability to relate to and interact with others (thus affecting their right to realise social and cultural rights and develop their personality, as outlined in Article 22), to learn (affecting their right to an education as stated in Article 26) and to access the justice system (affecting their right to equal protection before the law as stated in Article 7).   Furthermore, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises the importance of communication as vital for health literacy.  The WHO defines ‘communication and interpersonal skills’ as one of five areas of life skills globally relevant and necessary for health promotion and the protection of human rights across the world (World Health Organisation, 1999).

The rights of children
The importance of communication is also recognised internationally concerning the rights of children.  The United Nations Convention on the rights of the Child (1989), signed by all member States (excluding the USA and Somalia) acknowledges the rights of children to be able to express their views (Article 12, p.5).    Furthermore, Article 13 (p.5) states that “the child shall have the right to the freedom of expression; this right shall include the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.... either orally, in writing or in print...”.

Recognition of communication as a human right in the UK.
The international recognition of the importance of communication is reflected in UK policy and law.  Numerous reviews and white papers highlight the importance of communication to support child development and wellbeing. Just as in the case for the UN declaration of human rights, barriers to communication would also affect a child’s ability to achieve the five outcomes which are identified in the government green paper ‘Every Child Matters’ (2004) and underpinned in the Children Act 2004.  These outcomes are ‘be healthy’, ‘stay safe’, ‘enjoy and achieve’, ‘make a positive contribution’ and ‘achieve economic wellbeing’.  In the green paper the role of speech and language therapy as a priority in meeting a child’s educational and social outcomes is cited as an example of good practice (p. 19 Department for Education and Skills, 2004). The Children Act specifies the need for the Children’s Commissioner to ‘consult with’ and ‘communicate with’ children regarding the discharge of his/her function (Part 1, section 4, page 2, 2004).  Furthermore, the Act also stipulates that the Children’s Commissioner take steps to accommodate the needs of children who do not have adequate means to make their views known (Part 1, section 4, page 2, 2004).

The Bercow Review
In 2008, mindful of the importance of communication for health and wellbeing the UK government carried out a review of services for children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) (Department for Children Schools and Families, 2008).  The evidence gathering process of this review was comprehensive and included a range of enquiry methods.  Whilst the methods of sampling were not reported, the consultation questionnaire received 2000 responses, which considerably exceeds the usual requirements for a 95% confidence interval in findings for the population of the UK (Raosoft, 2014).  Consultation groups were held with a variety of interested parties, including a range of people affected by SLCN and services and professionals employed to support children and young people with SLCN.  Consultations were convened in a diverse selection of geographical locations, but did not include Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland (so therefore may only be representative of views in England).  The review also commissioned research from a range of UK academics with expertise in SLCN.  It may be concluded, therefore, that the findings of this review are representative of interested parties concerned with SLCN, particularly in England.  The review confirmed international opinion that communication is an essential life skill, stating, “the centrality of communication is not simply a personal statement of value. It is a formal, public and multilateral declaration...[and] is a fundamental human right.” (p. 16).

The use of language, therefore, is universal; it is the direct or indirect result of biological adaptations in humans to facilitate highly complex levels of cooperation necessary for advanced social life.  Language competence has been proposed as even more essential for participation in a technologically advanced society.  It is recognised internationally at a governmental and legal level to be a fundamental life skill, necessary for health, education as well as for emotional and economic wellbeing, and the protection of human rights.  Indeed, it has of itself been described as a human right (Department for Children Schools and Families, 2008; International Communication Project, 2014).   

The centrality of language to human life was summed up succinctly by Tammet (2014): “there is almost nothing we can do to a human being worse than take away their language and their ability to communicate and... relate to other human beings through language"  (you can listen to Tammet here, the quote is spoken at 04:42 minutes).  The question of whether it is language or some other factor which is the one defining feature of being human may not be answerable.  As stated above, the need for language, however, could be argued as a fundamental factor that enables us to be humans together.

The material from these essays has been adapted from my PhD thesis due to be electronically available from the University of Surrey repository.


Bickerton, D. (1992). Language and Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Children Act 2004,  (2004).
Department for Children Schools and Families. (2003). Every Child Matters. London: Crown Copyright
Fitch, W. T., Hauser, M. D., & Chomsky, N. (2005). The evolution of the language faculty: Clarifications and implications. Cognition, 97(2), 179-210.  
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American Children. Baltimore MD: Paul H Brookes Publishing Co.
International Communication Project. (2014). The Universal Declaration of Communication Rights. Retrieved from
Joffe, T. H. (1997). Social pressures have selected for an extended juvenile period in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 32(6), 593-605.  Retrieved from
Kuhn, P., & Skuterud, M. (2000). Job Search Methods: Internet versus Traditional. Monthly Lab. Rev., 123(3), 3-11.
Law, J., Reilley, S., & Snow, P. C. (2013). Child speech, language and communication need re-examined in a public health context: a new direction for the speech and language therapy profession. Int J Lang Commun Disord, 48(5), 486-496. doi:10.1111/1460-6984.12027
Livingstone, S. (2002). Young People and New Media: Childhood and the Changing Media Environment. London: Sage.
McKenna, K., Green, A., & Gleason, M. (2002). Relationship Formation on the Internet: What’s the Big Attraction? Journal of Social Issues, 58(1), 9-31.
Norman, C. D., & Skinner, H. A. (2006). eHealth Literacy: Essential Skills for Consumer Health in a Networked World. J Med Internet Res, 8(2), e9. doi:10.2196/jmir.8.2.e9
Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. London: Penguin.
Pinker, S. (2003). Language as an adaptation to the cognitive niche. In M. H. Christiansen & S. Kirby (Eds.), Language evolution. (pp. 16-37). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.
Raosoft. (2014). Sample size calculator.   Retrieved from
Ruben, R. J. (2000). Redefining the survival of the fittest: communication disorders in the 21st century. Laryngoscope, 110(2 Pt 1), 241-245. doi:10.1097/00005537-200002010-00010
Sampson, G. (1997). Educating Eve; The 'Language Instinct' debate. London: Cassell.
Sanchez-Navarro, J., & Aranda, D. (2012). Messenger and social network sites as tools for sociability, leisure and informal learning for Spanish young people. European Journal of Communication, 28(1), 67-75. doi:10.1177/0267323111432411
Savage, M., Devine, F., Cunningham, N., Taylor, M., Li, Y., Hjellbrekke, J., . . . Miles, A. (2013). A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC's Great British Class Survey Experiment. Sociology, 47(2), 219-250. doi:10.1177/0038038513481128
Skills for Life Network. (2015). About us.   Retrieved from
Tammet, D. (2014). Are drugs the answer to language learning? - Highlights from a debate hosted by the Guardian and British Academy.   Retrieved from
The United Nations General Assembly. (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child Retrieved from
Tomasello, M. (2007). The Human Adaptation for Culture: Public Lecture. London School of Economics.
Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
United Nations. (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   Retrieved from
Winston, R. (2002). Human Instinct. London: Bantam Press.
World Health Organisation. (1999). Partners in Life Skills Education; Conclusions from a United Nations Inter-Agency Meeting. Retrieved from
Wright, N. (2010). e-Learning and implications for New Zealand schools: a literature review. Retrieved from Hamilton:

No comments:

Post a Comment