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Review How language began

Chomsky was wrong. So was Pinker. So was anyone else who believed that our ability to use language is the result of a genetic mutation. Those who have read the studies on aphasia – Broca’s aphasia and Wernicke’s aphasia – and who believe that these are evidence for a specific location in the brain that deals with language are also wrong. There is no language gene. There is no part of the brain, nor any part of our physiognomy that was specifically created to serve the purposes of language. If language can be described as instinctive at all, it is second nature, it is learned. For this alone How Language Began is worth reading. It is a provocative and well-argued case for an alternative view, and this view is that the origins of language are cultural – born out of (among other things) the need to collaborate and the need to report information (and in consequence interpretations) of things that others have not seen. Language is not the province of Homo Sapiens either. This is not what sets us apart from previous incarnations Homo Erectus and Homo Neandertalis. Neither is there a hierarchy of languages. The notion of a protolanguage is also wrong – communication has always been a complex mixture of symbolic representation. Language should not be viewed as structure, but rather as process that is situated in contexts, that changes with contexts.

Robert Williams. Principal lecturer in the Dpt of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Westminster. Teaches on the MA TESOL and is course leader for the MA International Liaison and Communication, a pioneering course training people to be the bridge across communities and between language groupings. Currently the internal quality assurance member for CoMoViWo – a project designing intercultural communication training material in English and Spanish, with a specific focus on e- communication.

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