Language—its use is the most important thing that sets humans apart from other mammals. We are able to express all kinds of ideas and feelings besides talking about material objects, and can discuss hypothetical matters as well as realities past, present and future.
People have experimented with certain animals and birds, teaching them to respond to certain words. For example, chimpanzees have been taught to use sign language expressing a limited range of concepts. But no animal has ever displayed language ability coming anywhere close to that of their teachers.1 We are truly ‘wondrously made’.
Language is an essential part of human existence. It makes us unique in the animal kingdom. How then did humans acquire language?
Is it a learned ability, made possible by evolutionary development from primitive hoots and grunts, or an innate and essential part of being human? Philosophers and linguists have debated this question for ages, especially since Charles Darwin popularized the theory of evolution.
Many experts, unwilling to contemplate the existence of a creator, have sought to explain the development and use of language by naturalistic means. So they tell us that as man evolved he developed a vocal tract of the right shape to produce various speech sounds, and that as his brain became bigger he developed the ability to control and use his vocal tract for communication. Initially, we are told, he used grunts and hoots to express himself, and over a long period he refined these into what we today call spoken language.
The famous 20th century linguist Noam Chomsky (not a creationist) tried to find an explanation for language. He concluded, taking a stand against many of his contemporaries, that human language ability is innate.2 Today we have more evidence to back up this claim.3
Watching a young child learning to talk is fascinating. At first a child can’t say anything. But after months of hearing his parents and others talking around him and to him, he begins to say words that are intelligible. For a time he will babble, making sounds without meaning as he explores the possibilities of what he can do. Words begin to come one at a time (typically ‘Mum’, ‘Dad’, ‘car’ etc.), then in basic clauses (like ‘want drink’), and then in sentences. No matter how complex is the grammar of the mother tongue, the child learns it and uses it. By about age five he knows all the significant grammatical patterns, even though his vocabulary is quite small. Vocab grows by leaps and bounds after that, so that by the time he is a teenager he is learning new words at a fantastic rate. This ability to pick up language is itself evidence of an innate drive to communicate. But there’s more.
When children grow up in an environment of deafness, the inner compulsion to communicate can be seen more clearly, because it can be done even without spoken words. If the child is deaf, and the parents use sign language, the child quickly learns to express himself in sign language too. If the parents are deaf, the child will learn just the same; and if his own hearing is intact, he will also learn to speak fluently and naturally through his contact with other people. In effect he becomes bilingual, because sign language is a true language with recognizable grammatical and syntactic4 structure, only using hand gestures and facial expressions instead of sounds. So the desire and ability to communicate via language is there, with or without actual speech ability.5
A particularly striking example of this is to be seen in the experience of some deaf children in Nicaragua, reported by Peter Radetsky.6 Around 500 such children came together for the first time in schools for the deaf, established in 1980. Until that time they had had no established form of sign language. They had been living in scattered parts of the country, communicating with hearing relatives by gestures. Yet each child’s set of gestures had little in common with another’s.
But when they came together in the schools, they quickly developed a form of sign language between themselves. At first it was rudimentary, but before long it became a regular language with characteristic rules of grammar and syntax. Judy Kegl, a behavioural neuroscientist at Rutgers, described it as ‘the first documented case of the birth of a language.’ She continued, ‘Little kids about the age of three or four got exposed to that makeshift pidgin and absorbed it. And then, by virtue of their own language-generation capability, they came out with a full-fledged language.’ This sign language had no precedent. In our own culture, sign language has been handed down from one generation to another, but these children had no such background. Their language was entirely of their own making. ‘There is nothing that they could have used as a model’, says Kegl. ‘It’s clear evidence of an innate language capacity.’7
The first humans, Adam and Eve, had the ability to communicate with each other (and God) from the outset, using language. This includes the mental ability (and desire) to communicate, the physical means to produce speech sounds, the ability to hear them, and the mental ability to process the sounds and connect them with the concepts they represent. Since they had no experience of many of the words that God used, much of their vocabulary may have been preprogrammed, rather than acquired.
When God first created Adam He said several things to him such as, ‘You may eat freely the fruit from any tree in the garden, but you shall not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’
Unless Adam had been given some prior understanding of the meaning of the words, and the grammatical patterns in which they were used, God’s communication to him would not have worked.
But Adam had not yet seen a creature die, because death only began when Adam sinned (Romans 5:12). What then would he have understood by the word ‘die’? We today are all too familiar with the meaning of ‘die’, because we see death around us frequently. We are so uncomfortable about it that we use other, less stark expressions for it, like ‘pass away’, or ‘go to heaven’.
The text gives us no hint that Adam did not comprehend it. Even if he did not understand its full significance and horror, he must have known that it was a bad thing. God could have explained it as he talked with Adam in the garden. But we must conclude that he knew the meaning of the word that God used even before he had experienced what it signified.8
Language was an important part of the reason why we read in Genesis 2:20 that, before Eve was created, Adam found no partner suitable for himself among all the animals. They couldn’t talk to him! Adam needed a partner who could communicate fully with him, as well as being one with whom he could raise a family. So God gave him Eve, and he recognised that she was just right for him (Genesis 2:23). God knew what was best for Adam, and gave it to him freely—just as He does today for all who depend on Him.
Noted linguist William Foley claims that language developed when brain size in the evolving humans took an upward leap.1 As brains grew larger, their complexity of neural connections became very much greater and language became possible.
But really it is not brain size that matters, but how that brain is organized.
Brain size in humans ranges widely, typically somewhere between 1040 ml and 1595 ml.2 Even though brain size tends to correlate with body size, it would be simplistic and false to say that a large person with a 1500 ml brain should be nearly twice as intelligent as a pygmy with a 900 ml brain!
People of all body sizes have potentially the same mental abilities, simply because they are human. It’s true that some have a higher IQ than others. That’s part of the ordinary variability between individuals. But IQ does not correlate with the physical size of the brain.3