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  • Writer's pictureThea Le Fevre

Swim the River of Language Like an Ancestor

"See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" has been known in the Western hemisphere for several hundred years. The proverb existed long before then. It was first referenced in a famous quote from Confucius. "Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety." Through many years the proverb migrated to Japan, was translated, and over time whittled down to the saying we know today.

That is the beauty of language. It is born and recreated, morphing over time into an utterance. Language ebbs and flows with the tide and is as ancient as the rivers themselves.

Come with me as we define language and study the history of how it developed.

Let's Define Language as it is Now

Grammar, syntax, pronunciation. Is this what makes up language? We could focus on your vocal cords, but your need to express yourself would make more sense from a historical perspective.

Which is why we're looking at all of them. Not just your language. Or, to put it more clearly, not all of them but what's behind them. Because, truly, no language is above another. So why focus on just that one?

Right now, you're reading this in American English. I'm guessing that you're reading this article because you are interested in learning something other than your native tongue. Before you begin traversing the landscape of Spanish, Arabic, or Mandarin, take a look at this current article in depth. I'm about to take you on a journey back in time. Consider this your prequel to what lies ahead.

"I Think; Therefore I Am" but the Earth Came First

We could start by asking what came first, the world or language? That one we can answer definitively. The world, of course. Our species did not start with tongues and brains capable of speech. These abilities evolved. There have been many theories of how language initially developed. Still, none can be proven with the evidence we have today.

So, we know that the world around us influences how we speak. Our motivations (communicating needs to the group, planning group activities for survival, and educating the young about dangers) are evident. In the words of Sapir, 'The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.'

This is a picture of a chalk outline of a human head on a blackboard. There are three short, straight lines near the mouth to signify that the head is talking
Our language and our thoughts are influenced by our culture.

Language and Culture Are Synonymous

Ah, yes. Culture. That beautiful, three-dimensional word we discuss so often when learning about others in the world. Or even ourselves.

Our language shapes our thoughts and how we perceive the world around us. More specifically, it categorizes the world for us and puts them in neat little spaces in our brains. Even the way we observe the external area can be influenced by our language! But what does this have to do with culture?

Think about this deeply. We’ve discussed how to identify cultural embeddedness and find freedom from it. Simply put, cultural embeddedness is being so immersed in one culture that you virtually cannot view the world any other way. You may taste something new, but you have to rely on your senses to tell you what your body and mind think of it. You have no other frame of reference to work from.

This is what we’re talking about. You only know one language. The language is so familiar to you from such a young age that you cannot fathom how another language could influence your perspective. This is what we mean. You won’t fully master a language unless you understand the culture, just like you’ll never fully understand a culture until you immerse yourself in a study of their language.

The History of Language

The best way to fully grasp a concept is to go way back to when it began. When discussing real events in real-time, this means looking back at history (or, more accurately, pre-history). So, a ton of theories have been developed throughout philology and linguistics. (Linguistics is the modern term for philology, with a twist.)

Those theories have all been heavily discussed, debated, and rapidly disproven over time. In short, the only thing we know for sure about language development is that we basically don’t know. We know a few substantial facts based on our understanding of our history at this time.

Okay, so now we can speak. But what about the language? Isn’t that the point of all of this? Yes.

As time went by, our species grew in numbers. We became better than any of our brethren at utilizing tools. We increased our abilities as well as our numbers so rapidly that no other animal could keep up. Because of the growing size of the population of humans, it is more likely that humans needed to solve the social problem[.] Social skills like these are evolutionarily advantageous in a large society and are therefore subject to natural selection as the emerging society creates a more complex environment[.]

This is a picture of a wooden wheel in the grass next to a forest. On the right hand side is a stack of chopped wood.
Using tools differentiated humans from other species.

Each region where a people settled (when they transitioned from nomad-life to agricultural life) had contrasting challenges. In England, for instance, rain and snow were plentiful, providing bountiful springs and long, sterile winters. In Africa, on the other hand, the climate was primarily hot and arid. Each environment created unique pros and cons for its residents.

England was able to yield large crops and store them to survive the winters. This allowed their populations to expand while natural selection via harsh weather whittled their numbers down. This natural order of checks and balances helped them maintain healthy population levels. Now, you may be thinking, what does all of this have to do with language? Everything!

Because human beings had already gathered into groups to ensure their survival, a culture was already in place. By the time of the Agricultural Revolution, the language had already developed. This time's importance lies in how the culture and, therefore, language evolved based on the group's need for survival. As they transitioned from hunter-gatherer societies into agriculturally based communities, their group's needs changed. As their needs changed, so did their communication.

Now, knowing all of this, it would be easy to say, "Wait! Rewind!" if the environment had such an effect on a society's culture, it makes sense that it also impacted language development in its infancy! Well, you are on to something, but not quite. That's more along the lines of the Dingdong Theory. Apart from some rare instances of sound symbolism, there is no persuasive evidence, in any language, of an innate connection between sound and meaning.

So, what was the point of this history lesson? I'll simplify it here. Language developed so long ago in pre-history that we have no hard truths to share with you. However, we have determined a few things through the study of historical records and the use of the scientific method.

  • A group initially developed its own culture based on its unique environmental needs.

  • Language developed sometime after the group developed its own culture. Therefore, language was invented by those culturally embedded. This means each language conveys a different perspective of the world and places importance on other things.

  • There is no part of modern language that is innate. There are no universals. All language was uniquely born from individuals' perspectives within a particular climate based on the specific needs of the immediate time.

Phew! Did that make sense? So, now that we've discussed the history of language development (well, as much as we know about it), it's time to tie all of this knowledge back to the modern-day. Since we know the language evolves with the times, the next natural step would be, "Okay, we have this language. It's been developed by a group of people from a specific region with their unique perspective. So, how did we come to those conclusions in the modern-day? Let's skip a few (or maybe a hundred) centuries. I'll give you a brief overview of the most critical ideas in linguistic studies.

This is a picture of a map with a drawing of a man on top. We can see the profile of the man, who is writing something. The map is of the eastern United States.
Language is developed by people in a specific region with their unique perspective.

Universal Truths

This concept helped form the idea of “universals.” In the 1950s, a linguist named Noam Chomsky developed the theory of transformational grammar. Essentially, he theorized that The use of transformational grammar in language analysis assumes a certain number of formal and substantive universals. A “universal” is a concept that applies to everyone on the planet.

He further honed his theories. The use of these words and their structures are refined over time. It changes and evolves on the surface, but the deeper structures remain. This theory was heralded by linguists and considered truth for many years.

And Yet - Innate Ideas are Not So Innate

Since then, technology has advanced, and linguists have begun using more scientific methods when researching language. This occurred during the shift from philology (a largely text-based study of language) to the linguistics of today.

At this point, we’ve confirmed that:

· The world came first.

· Then there was humanity.

· Then there was culture.

· Then there was language.

Now that we understand the basic elements of the origins of language, we can move on to its modern problems. We established earlier in the article that I am assuming you are here with me on the ReDefiners World Languages blog because you want to learn another language. I said, “Hey! That’s great! Let’s explore some fundamentals about language in itself.” And now you may be asking, “Now that I understand how language began, can we start learning it already?”

The answer is a resounding yes!

Acquire a Second Language the Way Your Ancestors Invested the First One

Study the chart below. I mean, really look at it. Doesn’t it seem connected to what we were learning together earlier? No? Let me illuminate it for you.

This is a table that defines the following terms from top to bottom: Pre-production, Early production, Speech Emergent, Beginning Fluency, Intermediate Fluency, and Advanced Fluency. Pre-production is also called "the silent period," when the student takes in the new language but does not speak it. This period often lasts six weeks or longer, depending on the individual. Early production is when the individual begins to speak using short words and sentences, but the emphasis is still on listening and absorbing the new language. There will be many errors in the early productions stage. During the Speech Emergent phase, speech becomes more frequent, words and sentences are longer, but the individual still relies heavily on context clues and familiar topics. Vocabulary continues to increase and errors begin to decrease, especially in common or repeated interactions. In the Beginning Fluency stage, speech is fairly fluent in social situations with minimal errors. New contexts and academic language are challenging and the individual will struggle to express themselves due to gaps in vocabulary and appropriate phrases. In the Intermediate Fluency stage, communicating in the second language is fluent, especially in social language situations. The individual is able to speak almost fluently in new situations or in academic areas, but there will be gaps in vocabulary knowledge and some unknown expressions. There are very few errors, and the individual is able to demonstrate higher order thinking skills in the second language such as offering an opinion or analyzing a problem. Advanced Fluency is when the individual communicates fluently in all contexts and can maneuver successfully in new contexts and when exposed to new academic information. At this stage, the individual may still have an accent and use idiomatic expressions incorrectly at times, but the individual is essentially fluent and comfortable communicating in the second language.
These are the stages of acquiring a language.

This image is sourced from Colorín Colorado.

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Let’s think about what we just learned and put our heads together. This next section will make a few assumptions about historical societies, but let’s stick to the logic and what we know. We can do this!

Pre-Production. Sounds fancy, doesn’t it? This stage is all about listening, an essential step when communicating. You must get used to the sound of the language. Its cadence, inflections, exclamations, etc. Now, we’ve confirmed that sound and meaning are not innately connected. But this silent period is essential for you to grasp the romantics (as I call them) of the language. (Even if it’s not considered a romantic language.) It’s all about ingesting the vibrations through your eardrum and acclimating to them. Similar to the first stages of when we evolved into language.

Our ancestors had to hear the sounds of the world around them, their environment. Then they had to listen to the sounds their own mouths were capable of making. On top of that, they had to distinguish what sounds everyone could make with their mouths or figure out what sounds could be taught. So, as you can see, the steps for acquiring a second language will be very close to the theoretical steps our ancestors took when fabricating language for the first time.

Here, we’re going to take a lateral step. Let’s consider the stages from the perspective of our ancestors learning to swim in rivers.

This is a picture of a sunset illuminating a winding river. The sky is a golden color, and there are a few clouds in the sky.
For our ancestors, learning a language and learning to swim were similar.

The next stage listed above is Early Production. It merely means the speaker is now dipping their toes into the river of this new language. There’s possibly a tide and wind, making it difficult to get it perfect every time. They may start to say a word in the new language, but the tide pulls them a little too far to the left. The next word they try gets hit with the wind, and some debris gets tossed into the water—all par for the course.

After some more practice, they become Speech Emergent. They learn different strokes that yield different results. Their body becomes used to resisting the pull of the tide. The debris is easier to spot and escape from. Yet, still, the swimmer must rely on hints. Familiar paths they’ve previously traveled when swimming in the river. Signs like the direction of the wind and sounds to determine where there may be waves. It is, however, easier to swim.

They only make a few bad strokes, maybe a little stick gets stuck in their hair, but they’re quick to brush it off. They now experiment with sentences and challenging words. They’ve got their whole breadth of the river down and no longer have to follow the same routes. They do, however, get a little lost from time to time. At this point, we can consider them Beginning Fluency.

They reach Intermediate Fluency when they can start charting their route down the river and explaining it to others in the group. They know where the fish are. Which animals to avoid. They rarely, if ever, get dirt in their hair. It’s been a while since they made a mistake because they’ve become mostly one with the river. They feel comfortable within its chill and don’t even shiver anymore.

After some more time has passed, they are considered as a wise swimmer of the river. Others turn to them for guidance when entering it. They have mastered when to enter the river, what needs can be met with the river, the purpose of swimming in the river, every route along its length, and they no longer get lost. They are advanced in their fluency.

As you can see, nature has shaped humanity just by existing. The river represents the world, the swimmer represents humanity, and their skills represent language development over time. We learn second languages now based on the same steps our ancestors used to construct the language in the first place.

ReDefiners is Here to Help You on Your Language Acquisition Journey

If a loved one ever wonders, “How did language begin?” you now know what to say. And when you ask yourself, “How can I possibly learn this second language?” remember your ancestors. They created language as they went, just like they learned how to navigate a river. When you’re struggling, and you need some strength, remember them. Go back to the source. The knowledge of our ancestors is what makes us human.

ReDefiners does everything in our power to make your language learning journey, not only epic but insightful. We aim to ReDefine when languages are introduced, how they are acquired, and to increase who has access to high-quality language enrichment programs. We offer classes online to protect you and your family. There are courses for adults 18+ as well as summer programs for young students.

We have mentors who are advanced in their fluency. We know where the river is. We can help you learn it, just like your ancestors did.

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