Language forms spontaneously, and fast

Languages can form spontaneously, and surprisingly fast, reports a new paper.

Image credits Bruno Glätsch.

Researchers at the Leipzig University and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology report that preschool children are able to form communication systems which share core properties of language. The team was studying the processes by which communication systems such as language developed in the past.

Say what?

“We know relatively little about how social interaction becomes language,” says Manuel Bohn, Ph.D. at the Leipzig University’s Research Center for Early Child Development and lead-author of the study.

“This is where our new study comes in.”

People love to communicate — there are over 7,000 languages in use today according to Ethnologue. Just under half of them have few speakers remaining, but it does go to show how versatile people are at using speech to convey information.

Still, the processes through which languages form are still up to debate. While they’re believed to have formed over millennia, we’ve also seen deaf strangers spontaneously form new a sign language, the Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), blisteringly fast. The team notes that children developed the NSL, but exactly how they went about it wasn’t documented. So, they set about finding out.

They attempted to recreate the process in a series of experiments with children from Germany and the US. They were invited to two different rooms and provided with a Skype connection to communicate. Their task was to describe an image with different motifs in a coordination game to a partner. In the beginning, these were simple images, showing concrete objects such as a fork. As the game progressed, the images became more and more abstract and complex — a blank card, for example.

In order to prevent the children from falling back on known language, the team allowed them a brief interval for familiarization with the set-up and their partner, and then muted the conversation. Then they tracked the different ways they communicated.

The children figured out pretty quickly that concrete objects can be conveyed by mimicking their corresponding action — eating to represent a fork, for example. The more abstract images, especially the blank paper showing nothing, were much harder to describe. The team notes how two of the participants managed to establish a gesture to convey the concept:

“The sender first tried all sorts of different gestures, but her partner let her know that she did not know what was meant,” explains Dr. Greg Kachel, the study’s second author. “Suddenly our sender pulled her T-shirt to the side and pointed to a white dot on her coloured T-shirt,” representing the card with the colors on her clothes.

Gesture language

Image via Pixabay.

When the two children switched roles later on in the experiment, the transmitter didn’t have white on her clothes but used the same approach. When she pulled her own t-shirt to the side and pointed to it, “her partner knew what to do,” Kachel adds. In effect, they had established a gestured ‘word’ for an abstract concept.

Over the course of the study, the children developed more complex gestures for the images they were given. When describing an interaction between two animals, for example, they first established individual signs for individual actors and then started combining them. The team notes that this works similarly to a very limited grammatical structure.

All in all, the team believes that people first established references for actions and objects using gestures that resembled them. Individual partners involved in dialogue would coordinate with their peers by imitating each other so that they use the same signs for the same things. Eventually, this interpersonal meaning would spread to the group at large (as everybody mingled and coordinated), gaining conventional meaning. I personally find this tidbit very fascinating, especially in relation to pictorial scripts, be them ancient Egyptian or save icons.

Over time, the relationship between the sign and the concept itself weakens, allowing for signs to describe more abstract or more specific concepts. As more complex information needs to be conveyed, layers of grammatical structures are gradually introduced.

Some of the key findings of this study are that partners need a common pool of experience and interaction in order to start communicating, and how fast this process can take place if that prerequisite is satisfied: as little as 30 minutes.

It also goes to show that while we think of language as being formed by words, communication can happen without them. When people can’t talk to one another for some reason, they’ll find other ways to convey information with surprising gusto. Spoken language likely formed following the same steps, however, and was preferred as the fastest and most effective way of transmitting a message.

“It would be very interesting to see how the newly invented communication systems change over time, for example when they are passed on to new ‘generations’ of users,” Bohn says. “There is evidence that language becomes more systematic when passed on.”

The paper “Young children spontaneously recreate core properties of language in a new modality” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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