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The origin of the human language instinct

 Human beings are special creatures. We are able to use conceptual symbolic systems, human language, to communicate with each other. Such la...

 Human beings are special creatures. We are able to use conceptual symbolic systems, human language, to communicate with each other. Such language use is unique to humans on Earth.

Human traits are based on evolution and the human evolutionary heritage comes from the animal kingdom.

Even primitive animals, such as ants and bees, also use complex symbolic systems. These rigid forms of communication were formed by evolution.

The language used by humans was also made possible by biological evolution, but it is no longer shaped directly by biological evolution. Human language does change and evolve in an evolutionary way, but the mechanisms of evolution take place at the level of human communities, which allows for much faster change than biological evolution.

Human complex language is made possible by the human complex brain. Many other species with advanced brains also use a system of communication signals, but human language is significantly more advanced than all of them in flexibility, variability, complexity, and abstraction of information to be shared.

Special language use is not only a unique feature of human beings, but also a general characteristic. All human beings are basically capable of knowing language, using an abstract system of signals. What unique evolutionary trait, unique to us, do virtually all humans have that makes this possible?

Humans are determined by their genetic heritage, and their cognitive abilities set them above the animal world. Humans have the most advanced brain on Earth. A genetically determined, complex and plastic brain, unique to humans, and which is also the property of all humans, is certainly a fundamental and necessary requirement for human language. However, an evolved brain is not the only cause of language usage.

Knowledge of language is not an innate human trait. A language usually takes a long time to learn and there are many different languages. It follows that language is a product of the people living in community.

A language acquired through learning cannot exist without a community. Human language is created and maintained by the community. Language is a dynamically changing system of symbols. Not only is the vocabulary evolving, but the grammatical structure for the precision of meaning is also constantly changing in society.

Language is created by society and passes it on to new members of society, but what is the fundamental reason why a person with an advanced brain, living in a community, can use language? What is the quality that creates our ability to speak a language?

Almost everyone can learn and use some form of language. This ability is an innate, genetically determined trait of the human.

It would seem that there must necessarily be a specific linguistic instinct, unique to humans, which is genetically implemented and which allows language to be used.

In a complex system, a specific property is created by a specific structure or appears in an emergent way.

For human language to work, many biological structures that exist physically must work together. For example, the specialized hand and unique vocal organs certainly contribute to the unique human ability to communicate. However, language use is primarily a brain function. Moreover, there are specific areas of the brain that seem to be specifically dedicated to the ability to use language. These include, for example, the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of the brain. When these areas are damaged, the ability to use language is fundamentally impaired.

These structures are genetically determined features of the human organism. It seems that some human genes, such as the FOXP2 gene, also, if appear altered, directly affect the ability to communicate properly.

These features suggest that the human ability to communicate is directly evolutionary, unique to humans, and seems to justify the presence of a specific linguistic instinct.

Experience shows, however, that the damage or even the possible absence of biological structures involved in the ability to communicate does not make the presence of language impossible. Without the proper function of the organs involved in sound production, sign language can be easily acquired, and in childhood, when Broca's and Wernicke's areas are not normally developed, other parts of the brain take over the necessary functions, and hereditary damage to the FOXP2 gene does not make the ability to communicate impossible. 

There is no single well-defined brain or other physiological structure in humans whose presence is a sufficient or exclusively necessary condition for human language function.

The ability of human language is apparently generated by a non-rigid and non-unique system of biological structures interacting in a complex way. This casts doubt on the necessary existence of a specific structure for the supposed linguistic instinct.

However, the predisposition to be able to use language is a general characteristic of humans, even though the biological system associated with language use need not be a rigid structure.

The language ability may have been produced by a unique constellation of evolutionary accidents in the human species, creating a special emergent property of a non-rigid structure. This structure, emergence, and function can be seen as the language instinct.

The evolutionary emergence of human language use is certainly the result of a combination of evolutionary chance and environmental selection to create the necessary conditions. And when an evolutionary system is assembled successfully, the evolutionary advantage sustains the system.

The ability to communicate is an evolutionarily preferred trait for the individual, and the use of language helps to raise offspring in the community. The ability to use language, once evolutionarily evolved, can be stably maintained. 

Communication skills are a robust property due to the complexity of their components, and they can survive changes in the structures involved in their formation through adaptive behavior typical of complex systems.

Language use clearly provides an evolutionary advantage for both the individual and the community. Individuals that can communicate at a more advanced level can form a more efficient cooperative community that can raise more offspring. By evolutionary preference, language skills are an innate trait that explicitly helps us to live in a community.

Living in society both enables and requires the usage of language. Language use is a genetically determined, instinctively appearing, emergent property of our biophysical system.

However, language skills are not just about using language. Using language and learning language are two fundamentally different processes, even if they involve the usage of the same organ systems. Learning the language must also be an evolutionary preferred trait needed to use a language.

Language acquisition is a fundamental and early function of human life. The required linguistic ability must therefore have two functions. One function is to use language. It is not, as the previous argument suggests, a specific instinct, but an emergent property of the cooperation of evolutionarily evolved structures.

The second function is the personal acquisition of language, a function that is instinctive in childhood, but which does not seem to have a concrete, well-defined structural background in the brain. 

Since there is no well-defined brain area for the specific linguistic instinct that makes language learning possible, the process of its generation must be deeply rooted in evolutionary development, which in turn suggests an ancient origin and an originally different function to serve.

Obviously, we have a number of genetically based traits that are necessary for language ability, and which were necessary to evolve in order for ancient humans to be able to use language at all. Adequately complex, and suitably structured brains, appropriately shaped vocal organs are genetically determined structures that are certainly present reasons for the ability to develop spoken language. 

However, once the language has been established in society, the presence of all these genetic endowments no longer seems necessary for language acquisition. For example, language can be acquired in childhood even if the speech centers normally present in the brain do not develop for some reason, and sign language can be easily acquired even in the case of a disorder of the vocal organs.

We cannot unequivocally link the ability to learn a language to a hereditary trait required to use it. However, since such a trait must exist, since all newborns have it in practice, we should not look for a fundamental, genetically determined cause of the ability to learn a language among the functions that enable language use.

The ability to communicate persists throughout human life, but what we think of as the fundamental language instinct, the essential inclination to learn a form of communication, changes significantly with age, and it is degrading as we mature. 

Language acquisition in childhood is a natural, involuntary, instinctive process. In adulthood, however, language acquisition is an effortful, voluntary learning activity, even if the usage of the already learned language remains instinctive.

What ancient hereditary trait enables us to acquire a language that disappears as we grow up, and is clearly and necessarily linked to living in community? This would be the mysterious instinct for language learning, for which we cannot find a specific biological, apparently brain structure.

Today, we know enough about the structure and architecture of the human brain that we can safely say that there is no specific brain structure that creates the instinct to learn a language and which is exclusively dedicated to this role. 

However, because the phenomenon is apparently present, there may be a structure in the brain responsible for the instinctive acquisition of language that is not specifically responsible for language acquisition, but has a more general function, and whose basic function ceases during adulthood.

There is such a function, and it is mimicry, the innate instinctive ability to imitate.

Mimicry is a fundamental juvenile behavior of many organisms with complex brains for survival, an ancient brain function that is crucial for the acquisition of learned skills that enable adulthood. It plays a role in the successful breeding of offspring and is therefore a fundamental evolutionary trait. 

The evolutionary emergence of mimicry is likely to be linked to imprinting, which establishes a bond with the parents at the beginning of the offspring's life. Its further evolution in some animal species allows the acquisition of the skills of adulthood by imitating parents. Its function largely disappears during adulthood, although in humans, the tit-for-tat nature of fundamentally determining social behavior can still be recognized as mimicry even in adulthood.

The ability to mimicry is an evolutionary heritage of the human species. In humans, mimicry is no longer a function of maturation in the same way as in other animal species. Humans need to acquire more complex knowledge than can be learned through direct imitation. However, the ability can definitely function in humans, especially in childhood. And it is a feature that disappears as the brain develops into adulthood.

Direct imitation is an adequate method to learn a native spoken language. For example, the effectiveness of direct imitation can be seen in the learning of specific sounds associated with a language. The native, mother-tongue pronunciation of a language can only be acquired in childhood. Mimicry allows the used words to be learned from parents, which in cooperation with other parts of the developed brain that are utilized for communication, form the spoken language.

In adulthood, language learning takes place without the function of instinctive imitation, without mimicry, and is a conscious activity linked to the already existing learned language. This may also explain why, in adulthood, it becomes impossible to acquire a first language at native level. The instinct of mimicry no longer functions, and there is no possibility of linking the language to be learned to an already learned existing language.

Mimicry could therefore be our genetically determined ancestral trait that implements the instinctive ability to learn language in childhood, at a suitable time in brain development. Mimicry is our language instinct, our evolutionary inheritance, which, given the necessary endowments for language ability, enables us to learn language instinctively in the community.

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