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Humans Love to talk. It’s conversation that helps the youngest brains to grow, and the oldest brains to remain agile. The more we talk the larger becomes our vocabulary (the average Englishman has a vocabulary of some seventy-five thousand words). As an intensely social and inquisitive species, dependent upon each other for survival, this sharing of ideas ─ about ourselves, about other people, about events past and possible events to come ─ is the very stuff of our humanity1.
It seems that we humans were capable of quite specific communication long before we could speak. We used gestures. Babies first hold out their hands when they want something, and expect to see something of interest if they look towards the direction someone else is pointing. Speech and hand movements are controlled by the same motor region in the brain, and research with chimpanzees (who have only a 1.6% difference in their DNA to ourselves) show that they have an elaborate range of ‘gestural’ language, and can be taught the rudiments of sign language. Through our deep-seated empathetic skills it’s most likely that our ancient ancestors combined gesture with sophisticated appreciation of facial characteristics ─ it’s not just the continentals who communicate with words, signs and grimaces ─ we all do!
Some one hundred and fifty thousand years ago it seems that we humans had been standing on our back legs for long enough for the head to naturally sit further back on the spine so making our eyes better positioned to look forward. This slightly lengthened our throats (push your head backwards a little and see how this works) which in turn lengthened and slightly depressed the larynx ─ the voice box ─ so making it possible for us to control our breathing whilst talking at the same time (quite a feat). Some scientists have recently suggested that the advent of speech was made easier by the increasing diversity in the human diet, possibly due to the fact that our ancestors, who tended then to live either on the banks of rivers or close to the sea, had become sufficiently good at fishing that they were able to increase their supply of those extra fatty acids (EFAs) only to be found in fish. Such EFAs create better neural sheathing which, quite literally, stops brain signals from leaking. To cut a long story short, humans from then on have just never stopped talking. It’s not simply that we like listening to our own voices, but we are intrigued about everything we can learn from each other. With language, brain growth went into overdrive.
Any child born anywhere has the innate ability to make some sixty structured sounds, or phonemes, out of which every letter in every one of the six thousand or so extant languages are formed. Young children endlessly imitate the language they hear around them. By 18 months, the young baby surrounded by plenty of conversation is adding new words to their vocabulary at the rate of one every two hours; by thirty months the baby is learning a prodigious thirty new words a day… all without any explicit instruction or the threat of a homework test. Even more amazingly the child is putting those words into a meaningful sequence in joined-up sentences.
In the development of language the home environment in the first two or three years is of critical importance. The more language heard, and the more the child participates in conversation, the more confident the child becomes in extending its vocabulary. Research by the Kellogg Foundation in the state of Michigan2 into what were the greatest predictors of success at the age of 18 found that the most significant factor, four times more than any other factors, was the quantity and quality of dialogue in the child’s home before the fifth birthday. Families that talk a lot tend to produce the liveliest children.
Men and women have different talking strategies. Both sexes formulate the same number of words in a day – averaging 8,000; men only articulate about a third of these, whereas many women can effortlessly give voice to every formulated thought. This appears to have its origins deep in the ancestral environment when women always had someone to talk to as they reared the children whereas men for much of the time were alone as they hunted. Women use many words to get a variety of meanings, men use longer but fewer words to convey similar meanings. Everyone knows that men stubbornly refuse to ask the way! Studies show that women have a different (neither inferior nor superior) way of locating themselves in space which is more to do with their relationship to prominent objects, and less to do with abstract measurements of distance and direction. Women often feel happy asking for help find the way, whilst at the same time venting some of their daily dose of words! Men, when lost, keep quiet, and blame the map!3
Language enables us to learn from each other, we find out how and why things need to be done. Even when fully on-task, it seems we can all be tempted and fascinated by a bit of scandalous gossip!
Thesis 8: 24th August 2006