Trying to Answer the Questions… – Ruizhong Li

What is language?

Defined by linguists, language is a cognitive system which is part of every single person’s mental structure. Linguists believe that cognitive capacities are the product of structures in human mind. Given the hypothesis, language research is inseparable from the study of human brain and psychological process. Going beyond the individuals, language is an intersubjective system of meaning making dependent on collective cognition. Language is the primary tool for human to communicate information and ideas, however, why language became the primary cognitive system that is collectively shared by the human species remains mysteries.

What is the human capacity for language in general?

Human capacity for language is termed as language faculty. When we say language distinguishes humans from other species, in fact, it is the language faculty that makes the difference. Language faculty is the native speakers’ competence in that certain language. The competence of knowing a certain language equals having a certain mentally represented grammar. Native English speakers share common characteristics in their mental structure and it is same logic for any other language. People speaking different languages maintain different mental states. Regardless of the difference, language faculty is not specific to any one human language. That is to say, despite each language is governed by its distinctive grammar, all these grammars share principles of Universal Grammar, which go beyond a certain language, and define the features necessary for any language to be a certain language.

What is “a language,” What are the essential features that enables a language to be a language? 

As mentioned, the essential features that enables a language to be a language are termed as Universal Grammar. A language works according a set of rules. The essence of a language is phrase structure rules. It is these rules that allow for unlimited creativity of phrases and sentences. To form the grammar that is universal to any kind of languages, four components are indispensable: lexicon, syntactic component, phonology form component, and logical form component. It is comprehensible including the lexicon and syntactic component as a part of grammar. Lexicon is the brick for building a house. The syntactic component is the knowledge of architecture. Something special about language is that speech is generated with a sequence of words, and the “neighbors” of a word may change its phonetic form. For instance, the pronunciations of “west” in “west side” and “to the west” are definitely different. Another special point of language is that language is a tool for meaning-making, sometimes ambiguity occurs without the logical constraints. Think about a sentence: The boy saw the man with the telescope. We are not sure whether “with the telescope” is a complement for “the boy” or “the man” without the logical inference.

What are the implications of using the features of language as the model for other symbolic systems (visual, audio, and multimedia combinations) and for most forms of communication and media?

Language is one certain kind of symbolic system among numerous symbolic systems on the earth. Among all the symbolic systems, language emerges as the primary cognitive system of human being. The collective cognition is the most distinctive characteristics of language compared to other symbolic systems. Is it reasonable to apply the features of language to other symbolic system? I think it is a tentative process. Derived from the hypothesis in linguistics research, we can also form a more generalized term “symbolic faculty”, which could be applied to some specific field and specific group of people. Going to concert and art exhibition, is another way for people to communicate via visual arts or music. The major difference between these symbolic systems and language is the efficiency of communication: the efficiency would be discounted a lot if the participant in the communication share little common sense about visual or audio representation.

It is still interesting to apply the language features to music genre. We can imagine a baby who was born in a “music family”, in a band. His four older brothers had already played band for years, and the baby was born in a music atmosphere, which seems like a natural setting just like English language. You are allowed to play bass with the experienced music language speakers. Are you going to become a native music language speaker as well? Probably the answer is YES according to Victor Wooten. In his TED speech, he narrated his story of learning English and music at the same time, in the same way. It seems that it is possible to make the analogy between language and music as long as the natural setting of English and music are almost the same. You are not going to learn bass by enrolling into entry level class; you just play with it. You are not going to be taught English; you just say it. The special experience of Victor suggests the possibility of applying the language features to music genre, but also indicates the importance of social collective cognition of one cognitive system.


[1] “Irvine-Linguistics-Key-Concepts.pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 22, 2016.
[2] “Radford-Linguistics-Cambridge-Excerpts.pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 22, 2016.
[3] “Jackendoff-Foundations-of-Language-Excerpts.pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 22, 2016.
[4] Big Think. Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain, 2012.
[5] TEDx Talks. Music as a Language: Victor Wooten at TEDxGabriolaIsland, 2013.