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What is language?

In linguistics, language refers to a complex system of signs and rules that serve as a means of communication for a language community. Communication takes place with symbolic signs to which a meaning is assigned. Language is a peculiarity of humans and stands out from animal sounds. It is subject to constant change.

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Language development

At all stages of evolution, living beings possess the ability to communicate. However, humans are the only species that use language to communicate. The ability to acquire languages is based on anatomical and fine motor skills that other primates do not have. Humans have been communicating orally for more than 150,000 years; written language only developed about 5,000 years ago.

Function of language

Language is primarily used for interpersonal communication. At the same time, it fulfils an identity function within a society, since there is obviously a connection between a person’s identity and their choice of words. Within a linguistic community, there are different language forms such as dialects, which are primarily due to spatial differences. Language shapes a person’s thoughts, actions and imagination and also allows the transmission of culture.

Characteristics of language

Language is a complex system that combines sounds and characters (complexity). Loosely strung together words do not yet make a language. Rather, their meaning is derived from the rules according to which words are combined with each other. This system of rules is called syntax. The relationship between the meaning and the sound or writing of a word is arbitrary, which means that the meaning of a term cannot be guessed from the sound of the word (arbitrariness).

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FAQ: More questions about language

How many languages are there?

Linguists estimate that there are currently between 4,000 and 5,000 spoken languages on Earth.

How did language come into being?

It is assumed that all languages that exist today originated from an original language. According to this theory, animal sound systems were first refined by Homo erectus and their use intensified. A lot of time passed before a polished language was developed. Scientists locate the first complex language around 100,000 years ago.

In which language do deaf people think?

The language of the deaf is sign language. People who are deaf from birth primarily think in images and gestures.

What is the oldest language in the world?

The oldest language still spoken today is Aramaic, which has been spoken for around 3,000 years in Iraq, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. The Aramaic languages are a sub-group of the Semitic languages.

Why is language important?

Language is the most important means of being able to communicate with other people. Language serves as the foundation of our complex social systems. With it, people can express emotions, feelings and rational processes.

How do children develop language?

The ability to acquire a language is innate. Even in the womb, children perceive movements and sounds in their environment. Language acquisition thus arises in the exchange between parents and children.

How does language work?

Many parts of the brain are involved in the production and reception of language. When we speak, around 100 muscles are controlled by the brain, which move not only the tongue and larynx but also the lips, palate, throat and more. During comprehension, the brain analyses the sentences according to spatial and temporal features and compares it with stored word forms, grammar rules and meanings.

Why are there so many languages?

It is assumed that today’s languages have evolved from original languages. Over the millennia, they have gradually diverged. Above all, geographical distances play a role.

What do all languages have in common?

Every human community has a language and thus also an intonation system. Languages are learned, not inherited, and are subject to constant change. In addition, all languages have at least two vowels, interrogatives and negatives.

What is the most important language in the world?

Currently, English is the most important language on Earth. It is the official language in many countries and has replaced French in many places. Over the course of globalisation, English became even more popular than it already was.

How many languages can a person learn?

A person can learn several languages over the course of a lifetime. The average European speaks two languages. Fluency in three or five languages is rather unusual. While children can learn languages faster, even as an adult you can still develop your language skills.

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