There was a time when I was younger that I would go clubbing and show off my dancing skills.

When I first walked into the club I would get my mack on and talk to girls by the bar.  When I took the action to the dance floor the music was so loud as to make normal talking impossible.  Thus I would have to rely on non-verbal cues of communication, like body language and hand or facial gestures.  Needless to say I was rarely successful whether on or off the dance floor.  The point being that language (whether verbal or non-verbal) is the way humans communicate with each other.

It is almost impossible to conceive of a world without language.  Although some argue that non-verbal language is just as powerful as verbal language, let’s focus for a moment on the latter.  All language can be described with phonemes and morphemesPhonemes are the smallest unites of sounds in any language.  Click here to listen to the various English phonemes.  In the English language there are about 44 different phonemes.  There are many phonemes used around the world that we do not use.  My wife, who speaks Spanish, does this really cool rolling R phoneme that sounds sexy but I cannot do to save my life.  My Grandma, who spoke Yiddish, can do this funky throat clearing phoneme, that I can only do when I have a bad cold.  Some of the phonemes that we use, foreign speakers have difficulty pronouncing, like the th sound.

A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaningful sound.  Morphemes can be words, such as a and but, or they can be parts of words, such as prefixes or suffixes.  So language consists of phonemes put together to become morphemes, which make up words.  These words are spoken or written in a particular order, called syntax.  Each language has its own syntax, such as where the verb is usually placed in the sentence.  For example, in English, we out the adjective before the noun (white house) but in Spanish the noun often comes before the adjective (casa blanca).  By examining phonemes, morphemes and syntax (grammar), psychologists can describe different languages in detail.

Language Acquisition

Most psychologists are interested in how we first learned language and what kind of influence language has on the way we view the world.  The first stage of language acquisition is often called the babbling stage.  During this stage the baby is experimenting with various phonemes and if you listen closely to the cute babbling, you will here phonemes from ALL languages from all over the world.  So even though I cannot roll my R’s or do that cool African Bushman clicking sound, my four month old can!!!  It takes a few months of listening to those around us so we can begin to limit our phonemes to the ones that we will need for the English language.  This is a great argument as to why we should teach second and third languages at very young ages (they already know the phonemes).

The next language acquisition phase is telegraphic speech. This is where babies combine words into simple commands.  Although an adult can understand what the child is trying to say, their speech has no syntax.  They may say "Bottle, TV now!!!" and we know they mean "Daddy, can you please go the the fridge, prepare my bottle, give it to me and put Sponge Bob on.  Thank you ever so much."  During this stage children begin using syntax, but often incorrectly.  For example, they might learn that adding the suffix -ed signifies past tense, but they might apply it at inappropriate times, such as, "Caleb hitted my head so I throwed the truck at his face".  This misapplication of grammar rules is called overgeneralization

There is no next stage of language acquisition- they go from telegraphic speech into complete sentences.  But there are two competing theories of how children learn language so well.  The first theory is rooted in Behaviorist BF Skinner’s operant conditioning.  This theory states that when a child is rewarded for using a word (either by a smile or encouraging word) then they will keep saying the word.  Bad language rules are punished and good ones, rewarded.

Recent cognitive theorists have stated that children not given reinforcements still use learn language, so BF is full of it.  Researcher and philosopher Noam Chomsky believed that humans learned language WAY to fast for it to be learned purely through reinforcers.  He theorized that children are born with a language acquisition device, an inborn universal understanding of language where children just know how to learn language from birth (this is also called the nativist theory of language acquisition).  The true answers probably lies with a combination of both Skinner and Chomsky.

Language and how we view the world

Most of us assume that humans think about the world and come up with words to describe what is in our minds.  Psychologist Benjamin Whorf came up with an interesting concept called linguistic relativity hypothesis, that challenges the status quo and states that language may control the way we think, not vice versa.  He theorized that the limitations on the grammar and vocabulary in our language may create limitations on how we see the world.  For example, the Hopi Indian tribe in North America had very few words in their language for past tense.  Thus because their language did not address past tense, the Hopi Indians seldom ever thought about the past.  The implications of Whorf’s idea are extraordinary.  If our language restricts our thinking, then just by changing some of our language rules and definitions, may change the way we view the world!