Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Another assignment on my journey to become an SLP at GSU

Introduction to Language Disorders 
February 6, 2012
EXC 4320: Assignment 1
Are the Abilities for Language, Speech, and Communication Uniquely Human?

Anyone who has ever spent time around a dog can see that communication between a dog and a human clearly takes place. Dogs vie for attention, shoot glances when they want food, and display other actions to portray feelings. Since communication “refers to the sending and receiving of messages, information, ideas, or feelings” (Reed) dogs clearly communicate with humans and with other dogs. Using the dog example, it is safe to say that dogs also display an ability to use speech as well. Reed cites speech as “the oral expression of language that involves sensorimotor processes by which language users reproduce the coded symbols that are stored in their central nervous systems so that others can hear the symbols. Dogs bark, whine, and whimper, among other sounds, to convey different meanings for what they want to convey to their audience.

Dogs might even have language, considering language is “a code in which we make specific symbols stand for something else” according to Reed. A bark can convey happiness, and it can convey anger. A whimper can convey sadness, hunger, or desire. What dogs don’t have, however, is the ability to write down their coded symbol systems. Based on this example, it would be safe to draw the conclusion that the ideas of communication and speech are not uniquely human and can belong to various species of the animal kingdom. Language can sometimes be attributed to animals as well. Where language is uniquely human however, is the area of written language. It is this writer’s view that only humans can create a written “code in which we make specific symbols stand for something else.”

In addition, there are other examples of communication and speech, but not language among the animal population. According to Reed’s definition of communication, a bird’s chirp is certainly a sign of a sent message to another bird. It is also an example of speech. A primate can communicate in a more complex way than a bird or a dog, certainly, and some have even been taught simple signs to communicate even further complex ideas. Can a chimp write down those ideas? Probably in the same way a toddler would, in fits of scratches and scribbles. Sure, those symbols have meaning to someone that works with him on a daily basis, but not as an accepted language structure and coded written symbol system.

In their article titled Mechanisms Underlying Language Acquisition: Benefits From a Comparative Approach, Daniel Weiss and Elissa Newport acknowledge the divide between humans and non-humans with regard to each group’s capacity for language acquisition. Weiss and Newport state that “there is a broad range of shared features across species that have been co-opted for use by the language faculty, but these features did not specifically evolve for language” and “the differences between humans and nonhumans may be one of quantity as opposed to quality (2006.)” Their research goes on to hypothesize on the WHY of this divide, therefore recognizing that language IS uniquely a uniquely human trait. Weiss and Newport list studies of examples between species, specifically birds and non-human primates to illustrate their point as well. They state: “many songbird species acquire their species-typical vocalizations through a period of vocal learning that is similar in many ways to human language acquisition” and “primates show abilities similar to human infants in speech production (2006).” In other words, the Weiss and Newport believe that birds have the ability to vocalize (produce speech) and communicate (send and receive messages) but not to code their language in the way that humans can, because humans are more cognitively complex. This passage also illustrates that Weiss and Newport believe that primates possess abilities similar to that of a human infant when it comes to language—they can coo and babble (produce speech) and they can communicate basic needs, but can not write their symbols down or express complex thought.

Weiss and Newport elaborate to state: “There are a number of ways to conceptualize the underlying differences between species that could result in only humans being capable of acquiring communication systems like language” (2006) before listing and explaining those ways. One of the ways they list to conceptualize the differences between species suggests “large quantitative computational differences across species” (2006). One can only be left to assume that such “quantitative computational differences” is another way of saying how each species expresses its ideas, whether they write them down, use grammatical rules consistently, or aspects of that nature. In other words, Weiss and Newport state that only humans have the cognitive capacity to produce language, though other species can certainly produce speech and communicate effectively within their own species.   

In a broader sense, Reed also states in her definition of language “although the symbols are arbitrary, the symbols and their appropriate referents must be mutually agreed on by members of a community using the code if the code is to be meaningful. In this sense, language is a convention (2012).” This point further illustrates why language can only be attributed to humans. Only humans have the cognitive ability to agree upon such symbols within their community as we do. It would be a fairly broad assumption to say that dogs talk with each other to decide what they are going to call that tree over there. They know the tree over there is a tree, maybe by possession, maybe by marking, but can not string sentences together to say so. A chimp can know that her mother is five feet away, and can maybe call to her because she wants to be fed, but can not string together a sentence to say so, and certainly can’t write it. Is that language? According to the definition in Reed, the two previous examples fit the definitions of communication and speech, but not language.

According to the definitions, language is really just a matter of degree. It could be said that communication is the broad overarching umbrella term that speech and language fall under. Language is the most specialized variety of communication. Animals have evolved to survive, and humans have evolved to do more than survive, but to live and thrive and entertain them selves. Language is simply a way to accomplish the tasks of living and thriving and entertaining ourselves.

Reed, Vicki A. (2012). An Introduction to Children with Language Disorders. (pp. 2-3). Upper    Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Weiss, Daniel and Elissa Newport. (2006). Mechanisms Underlying Language Acquisition: Benefits From a Comparative Approach. INFANCY, 9(2), 241–257. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
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