Designed for Communication
- Friday, October 05, 2012
The Gift of Language
The spoken word is our primary means of communication, but language can exist independent of speech or hearing, as the sign languages used by deaf people demonstrate. Language involves using a code, a sequence of symbols placed in a particular sequence, to represent the ideas we want to convey. When we speak, the code symbols are particular sounds. Writing and reading are also ways of expressing our gift of language using visual symbols—the letters of a particular alphabet replace the sound symbols they represent. A message can, however, be transmitted using different symbol types—for example, the dots and dashes of the Morse code, Amerindian smoke signals, or the 1s and 0s of digital coding, stored as magnetic patterns on a hard drive. In sign languages, hand shapes and gestures form the symbols.
Symbols are arranged into groups—words—each with a particular meaning. In spoken and sign languages, the words are put together using certain sets of rules called grammar, in specific patterns or sequences known as syntax.6
When we understand a message, it means we have deciphered the code—because we have learned the convention behind it. Neither symbols nor words mean anything in themselves. For example, if you, blindfolded, drew four Scrabble letters in the order G-I-F-T, to someone who has learnt the “key” to unlocking the code of English, that sequence means a “present.” But if you had been brought up to speak German, it would mean “poison”!
When young children learn a language from their parents, they don’t need complicated lessons in vocabulary, comprehension, and grammar—all those rules are just picked up naturally as they grow. Once past our early childhood years, that ability mostly disappears, and we have to learn new languages the hard way. I was fortunate enough to grow up bilingual.7 It is not uncommon for children to learn three, four, or even more languages before the age of 7 or so, automatically keeping them separate and mostly unconfused, despite sometimes greatly differing rules of grammar. They just absorb them with ease from the surrounding grownups.
Could Language Have Evolved?
Trying to explain how our astonishing language ability could have evolved from “primitive grunts” is very difficult; there are no proposals even partway convincing to most evolutionists themselves. For some time, it was thought that language was just something “learned,” but it seems likely now that the capacity for developing language and grammar is something “hardwired” into us from birth.
Observed: The Birth of a Language
One of the most fascinating evidences for this innate capacity for language involves some five hundred children in Nicaragua, deaf from birth. Until 1980, when schools for the deaf were set up there, they had been living all over the country. They gestured to communicate with their hearing relatives but had no established form of sign language. When they came together in the schools, though, they quickly developed their own unique sign language among themselves. This language had its own vocabulary, rules of grammar, and syntax—a fully fledged language that had no precedent. The “hardware and software” that must already be in our amazingly designed bodies to enable such a thing to develop “naturally” is inconceivably complex—imagine some futuristic computer program with the ability to design totally new programs. Truly we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
The Real Origin of Language
The Bible makes it plain: the first couple were not created from animal ancestors, but Adam was made directly from raw elements (“dust”) and Eve from his rib.8 Like ours, their bodies contained incredibly complex micromachinery, programmed to be able to pass on those programs to their descendants. Even though we speak of the “miracle” of birth, we were not miraculously created in the way they were.9 Rather, the incredible mechanisms for reproduction, which show us massive amounts of programmed information being transmitted down a chain, speak of the immense creative power and intelligence of God, the master Programmer and Designer.
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