Digging in the Soil

There are many reasons to be fascinated by language. For one thing, every human being with even moderate mental faculties engages in the use of some type of language. You don’t have to wonder why you’re doing it or even notice that you’re doing it, but you’re still going to continue doing it, and throughout your entire life. It’s one of the most innate activities we humans engage in. The part of the movie Cast Away when Tom Hanks’s character draws a face on a volleyball and names it “Wilson” is not simply meant to provide some sympathetic, if slightly unnerving, comic relief. It’s a realistic illustration of the terrible toll that not having someone to communicate with can take on a person.

To me, the study of language for its own sake is fulfilling enough, but imagine most people don't feel that way, and I can easily understand that sentiment. I have known people who love mathematics passionately and spend hours on end immersing themselves in the field, simply for the love of it. This to me is akin to choosing to eat only kale and Swiss chard out of pure passion for bitter greens—of course, there are people who do that kind of thing, and they very well may have the right idea. The truth is that many of the world’s technological advances and modern conveniences are ultimately owed to those who have devoted themselves to mathematics, so I am personally thankful for people who indulge that kind of obsession.

I think the need for foreign language education is enough per se to rationalize linguistic pedagogy, but as a scientific field of study linguistics tends to be considered obtuse and less than useful in modern society. True, linguistics is not necessarily a “hard” science like biology or chemistry, but as it seeks to analyze a universal and inalienable human phenomenon, it occupies a significant place in the grand scheme of human sciences. If I had to frame the field of linguistics in such a way as to “legitimize” it in the real world, though, I would explain it in terms of all the other disciplines that it overlaps with.

If you delve into linguistics, and you really dig around in the soil, you will eventually hit the roots of many other subjects:

  • You’ll see how language and anthropology are inextricable, since language had to develop in order for us as a species to become as successful as we have been at migrating and settling. You might be interested in how language is linked to ethnic identity, or how in some tribal communities men and women use different forms of the same language, or even the fact that baby talk is not a universal phenomenon.
  • If you study etymology and philology, you will discover how language can act as a series of footprints left from the events that have made up human history. Sometimes it only takes one invasion, one war, one event to change the speech patterns of an entire society.

  • You might explore genetics a bit when you find that the FOXP2 gene is primarily responsible for speech and language development in humans. Several members of a well-studied British-Pakistani family exhibit a defect of this gene, and they have displayed limited capacity to learn and pronounce even the simplest words.

  • You’ll have no choice but to learn something about neurology, because a number of massively complex neural networks in the brain underpin every aspect of language development, comprehension, and usage. Damage to a certain part of the brain (Broca's area) will result in the inability to string together words grammatically, all the while managing to comprehend the speech of others and maybe stammering a few meaningful words; damage to another part (Wernicke's area) will cause a patient to speak fluently in full sentences but utter nonsense words and not understand anything spoken by others.

  • You might touch on psychology, how our underlying thought processes affect our individual speech patterns, and, conversely, how speech can affect thought patterns. You might be interested in the relationship of language to hypnosis and the power of suggestion, negative thinking and depression, and the inborn ability of children to acquire language.

  • You’ll find that language is a large part of the field of sociologyparticularly when dealing with prestige dialects, youth jargon, regional variation within a linguistic community, and prejudice surrounding certain accents.

  • Eventually, you may stumble upon the crucial role that language plays in politics, whether you examine the importance of oratory, issues of gender associated with certain languages, or even propaganda and the “cult of personality.”      

  • Finally, you’ll come into contact with a variety of high-level arts and cognitive sciences: literature, music, rhetoric, philosophy, computer programming, and artificial intelligence.

So, the overarching principle of human language is the universality of experience. Linguistics seeks to examine the origins, the mechanics, and the higher implications of language as a universal phenomenon. It really is one of the relatively few things that all fully functioning human beings do. There are accounts of “feral” children being found without having acquired language, but studies have suggested that these children’s mental development was severely stunted by their isolation, and that only in such extreme instances of neglect will a human not acquire speech. We don’t need to read of the horrible “pit of despair” experiments performed in the 1970’s—in which baby rhesus monkeys were placed in isolation chambers after bonding with their mothers—to understand what deep psychological damage results from being bereft of social interaction. Language and communication are at the core of that very basic human need; to explore this idea scientifically is to attempt to grasp the taproot of our humanity.