Applied Linguistics

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Applied Linguistics

Applied Linguistics

Humans seem to acquire language in a manner different from other types of behavioral learning. The onset of language learning is sudden (around the age of 2). We learn our native language without instruction, in fact, we can learn 2-3 languages at that age as easily as one. If we do not learn to speak between the ages of 2 and 6, it appears that we lose the ability to speak normally the rest of our lives. All this evidence suggests that we have a 'language organ' which other species do not possess, a segment of our brain which is triggered by a stage of development, much the same as walking is.

A simple way to disprove this Innateness Hypothesis, as linguists call it, is to demonstrate that other species have the capacity to speak but for some reason simply have not developed speech. A logical candidate for such a species is the chimpanzee, which shares 98.4% of the human genetic code. Chimpanzees cannot speak because, unlike humans, their vocal cords are located higher in their throats and cannot be controlled as well as human vocal cords.

It does not follow from their lack of speech, however, that chimpanzees are incapable of language, that is a human-like grammar. Perhaps they can acquire grammar and speak if they could only use grammar some way other than with a voice. The obvious alternative is sign language, since all primates have extremely dexterous hands and sign language is a language. You have probably already read about the regular chimpanzees Washoe and Nim Chimpsky, and the lowland gorilla Koko, all of whom learned to sign and interact very naturally with their trainers. All of these animals were taught to sign in order to get food, tickling, grooming, toys, and to get out of their cages. The question, then, is whether chimpanzee and gorilla signing is language; is it based on grammatical rules?

What is Language?

We have all managed to get around in a foreign country by 'talking with our hands'. This is possible because language is not the only symbolic means of communication. In order to prove that chimpanzees and gorillas are capable of language, and not simply a different kind of symbolic communication system, they must learn a sign language with the basic characteristics of human language. These include the following.

1. The language must be based on arbitrary symbols. The sounds of words do not normally contain any hint of their meaning. The sound of the word dog does not suggest dogs. In fact, the French word chien and Russian sobaka work just as well to express the same thing as dog though they areradically different sounds. So signs must not look like their meanings.

2. The arbitrary symbols must be used in strict order. In English we can say "I see the dog" but not "the see dog I". If we move words around in sentence, we have to change the morphology, the shapes of the words, as in ...
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