Stephen Fry has embarked on a series of documentaries about language, beginning with the evolution of language which he calls ‘the final frontier’ of human understanding. The typical documentary hype is all here: Stephen Pinker sits in a gigantic fish tank with bits of taxidermied brain lying around like sandwiches; Michael Tomasello appears to live in a tropical primate enclose; Fry conducts his studies from a medieval study complete with quills, a CGI tree of languages and a talking parrot.
Despite this, it was actually a coherent and comprehensive review of topics in the field: Language versus communication in animals, phisological constraints of language, creativity and the desire to share information, the pragmatic origins of language, FoxP2 and the poverty of the stimulus. Bilingualism is even added to this cannon of interesting ways to approach the origins of language, somewhat tempered by Fry’s question “wouldn’t it be better if everybody spoke Esperanto?”.
Mercifully, Fry seems to be actually interested rather than trying to build up the conspiracy plot format endemic in other science documentaries. There are some odd diversions to a Klingon version of Hamlet, a trip to a German Christmas market and a slightly awkward re-enactment of a feral child case, but all in all the message is not objectionable: There is a graded difference between non-human and human communication, it’s partly genetic and partly cultural and languages continually change under pressures to be learned and to express new ideas. There are also welcome additions of the original Wug test and, of course, Fry & Laurie’s seminal sketch about language.
Overall, I’d say it was the second best documentary the BBC have made about the origins of language.
Last week I put up a link to an online experiment. Here’s the results! You can still do the experiment first, if you like, here. Source code and raw results at the bottom.
Languages evolve over time under a pressure to be learned by a new generation. Does learning two languages at once effect this pressure? My experiment says … maybe.
These pressures include ones for learnability (compression) and expressivity (able to express a large variety of meanings, Kirby, Cornish & Smith, 2008). Bilingualism seems like an unlikely ability since learning an extra language leaves the speaker potentially no more expressive at a cost of an increase in the amount of effort required to learn it. There is no pressure for one language structure (e.g. English) to adapt to another language (e.g. Mandarin) so that they can become optimally learnable and expressive as a single medium. That is, there’s no reason to assume that expressivity and learnability pressures apply across languages (which are not being used by the same people).
Nevertheless, children display an aptitude and a willingness to learn and use multiple languages simultaneously, and at a similar rate to monolingual children. Therefore, languages do seem to have adapted to be learnable simultaneously. Does the compatibility of languages point to a strong innate property of language? In contrast, it might point to underlying similarity in the structure of languages, brought about by universal principles of communication.
When thinking about bilingualism and language evolution, there appears to be a paradox: Children are adept at learning more than one language at a time and there are many bilingual societies in the world. However, pressures on memory and redundancy makes it unclear what the adaptive advantage of a cognitive capacity for learning multiple languages at an early stage of language evolution would be. For instance, Hagen (2008) has argued that a bilingual ability would not have been adaptive in early societies and so could not have been selected for. Furthermore, many models have suggested that bilingualism is an unstable trait in a society (e.g. Castello et al., 2008). How can we account for the evolution of this ability? Would an early population of language users most likely be monolingual or bilingual? Here, I take a top down and a bottom up approach and show that they tends to lead to two different conclusions.