Language as key to unlocking the human mind (2023)

(The following is an interview that appeared in the May 2013 issue of theFaculty of Humanities Newsletter).

Where others regard it merely as a means of communication, language for EnochO. Aboh offers a way of understanding culture, life and even the inner workingsof the human mind. As comparative linguist and profiling professor ofLearnability since September 2012, Aboh sees countless possibilities forcollaborating with other disciplines. ‘For the future of our domain, it isessential that we become more interactive and reach out to researchers fromother disciplines.’

Accidents and luck

One of the first things that strike me as I enter a sun-drenched office isthe affable nature of a man who humbly describes his impressive career as asuccession of accidents and luck. Growing up in Benin in the 1980s, Enoch O.Aboh had little idea of the bright future that awaited him as a professionallinguist. ‘I initially studied economics before moving to neighbouring Togo andgraduating with a Bachelor’s in English. In those days the only thing that anEnglish graduate could do was become a secondary school teacher, which didn’tseem very attractive at the time.’ Deciding to pursue a more practical line ofstudy, Aboh chose to study translation at the University of Geneva, but ended upmissing the entrance exams due to administrative reasons related to his visaapplication. Forced to wait another year to do a retake, he started exploringcomputational linguistics and linguistics, two subject areas which hadinterested him while studying English. ‘I decided to take some courses inlinguistics at Geneva, which at the time was the European centre of generativegrammar. I took a class taught by Prof. Luigi Rizzi, and was so impressed that Iended up enrolling in the university’s linguistics programme.’

Rediscovering language

In 1998 Aboh's sudden love affair with linguistics became a lastingrelationship when he completed his dissertation on the clause structure ofsentences in the Kwa language group. Titled From the Syntax of Gungbe to theGrammar of Gbe (Geneva 1999), Aboh’s thesis is devoted to themicro-comparative study of the Gbe languages (a subfamily of the Kwa languagesof West Africa) and explores the principles underlying cross-linguisticvariation within this language group and typologically different languages suchas Romance and Germanic. ‘I had originally intended to explore questionformation in French, but was encouraged by my supervisor Liliane Haegeman tofocus on Gungbe, which is a language I can speak but on whose linguisticstructure I had received no instruction (e.g. grammar, phonology, morphology,semantics). To understand this, it is important to know that in Benin, a formerFrench colony, French is the unique language of instruction and no so-callednational language is tolerated in school, not even as a subject of study.Accordingly, I could not even identify the part-of-speech or the grammaticalelements of Gungbe, a language I could speak naturally but which I did not thinkwas worth studying. My research on this language and other languages of the Gbeand Kwa family therefore gave me the extraordinary opportunity to rediscover myindigenous native language, which I could then compare to other languages Ispoke natively (e.g. French) or as a second language learner (e.g. English). Asmy work evolved, it became clear to me that certain linguistic phenomena, whichI once assumed typical of languages with an oral culture, are constant acrosstypologically different languages as well as across oral or written cultures. Anew world had been opened to me.’

Joining the UvA

After completing his dissertation, Aboh continued working as an associateprofessor at the University of Geneva before joining the Amsterdam Center forLanguage and Communication as a postdoctoral researcher in 2001. ‘I wasattending CALL (Colloquium on African Languages and Linguistics) in Leiden whereI presented a paper on focus constructions in the Gbe languages and struck up aconversation with Norval Smith. He made comments on my paper and told me that hehad written a paper on the same focus particle I discussed in my paper, butwhich was also found in Saramaccan, a Suriname Creole. We talked about mydissertation and how I had sought to map the similarities and dissimilaritiesbetween Gbe (Kwa) languages. Having proposed a very fine description of theselanguages, which have been prominent in the formation of certain Creoles likeSranan, Saramaccan, and Haitian, I mentioned that the next step for me would beto examine these Creole languages on the basis of my findings. This we bothagreed would inform us on how these Creoles emerged and shed light on whetherthey have linguistic properties that are typical of West African languages asopposed to other properties typically found in Romance and Germanic languages.'Almost two years after their conversation,Smith, who had himself been doingresearch jointly with Pieter Muysken on the development of Surinam Creoles,formally invited Aboh to come to Amsterdam and participate in the NWO-fundedresearch project 'A transatlantic sprachbund? The structural relationshipbetween the Gbe languages of West Africa and the Surinam Creole languages'.Thisjoint project between the UvA and the University of Leiden aimed to identify andaccount for potential structural relationships between Surinamese Creoles andthe Gbe languages. Aboh: 'Looking back at my decision to take part in theproject, I realise now that it was a good move in the sense that it made methink about where language variation comes from, who creates it and how itscreation can be accounted for.'

A love of linguistics

Aboh's interest in language variation would go on to play a more prominentrole in his research at the UvA. In 2003 he was awarded a Vidi Grant for theproject 'The typology of focus and topic: a new approach to the discourse-syntaxinterface'. This project sought to investigate the nature of the interfacebetween discourse pragmatics and syntax by exploring how grammatical rules thatdetermine the structure of a sentence interact with discourse/pragmaticproperties. Following this project, Aboh' work continued developing along twomain axes: comparative syntax with a focus on linguistic variation and typology,and the comparative syntax of Creole languages as they relate to their sourcelanguages. In exploring these aspects, his own research took a clear turntowards understanding issues of language acquisition and change. 'One of thethings I learned from my work on Creole languages is that speakers and learnershave this profound capacity of taking different language elements andrecombining them into a coherent grammatical system. This seems to be anessential aspect of our "learning algorithm", which we can also see in theformation of new words. For example, take the word "Whatsapp", which wasactually a fused sentence "what is up?" with interrogative meaning, but laterbecame a noun after the final part was manipulated substituting the preposition"up" for what looks like an affix "app", taken from "application". The newlyformed word somehow maintains the interrogative meaning, but also meanscommunicating with friends using a specific application on one’s smartphone orany similar android device. This led to the usage of this word as a verb, whichDutch infinitive form takes the affix "en", as in "Whatsappen". This verb,however, consists of two parts, one Dutch and one English. This a clear exampleof the things that learners are capable of, and which I seek to understand in mycurrent research; how are they able to do this, and what are the principlesbehind it?'

Making linguistics accessible in Africa

As someone for whom linguistics has been a key to unlocking a new world inthe study of languages, Aboh is passionately involved in making linguisticsaccessible on the African continent. Aboh: 'One thing I learned whilecontributing to our knowledge of the differences and similarities betweenlanguages, is that much of the work we do here is unknown in Africa for reasonsmainly related to the unaffordability of books and material.' Given this stateof affairs, many African languages are still considered by their speakers asworthless both on economic and scientific counts. Wishing to play a part inincreasing linguistic awareness in Africa, Aboh started collaborating withlinguists from Rutgers University and New York University and in 2007 formed theAfrican Linguistics School (ALS). Unique in terms of its objectives and teachingmethodology, the ALS aims to expose African students to new advances inlinguistics and help them conduct further research on Africa languages. Held in2009 and 2011, this year’s ALS will take place in Ibadan, Nigeria and willinvolve about 80 students. Aboh: ‘With the help of funding from the UvA andothers we were able to cover students’ travel and accommodation costs in 2011.’As for the need for such a school, Aboh is in little doubt. ‘I am reallyinvolved in the ALS, not only because it’s important that African studentscontribute to the debate, but also because West Africa is one of the regionswith the highest rate of language diversity on earth; it’s a goldmine forlinguistic research. If there is anything to be discovered in languageacquisition, language variation, contact and change, it’s there!’

An ambassador of learnability

Listening to Aboh talk about the need to expand linguistic knowledge, itseems obvious why he is the ideal person to play a leading role in theLearnability programme, which forms part of the Brain and Cognition researchpriority area. As professor of Learnability, Aboh will be responsible forbringing together a diverse mix of researchers and formulating collaborative,cutting-edge research programmes. Aboh: ‘There are three concrete aspects to myposition: one is to develop a new working hypothesis in terms of learnability byintroducing new courses related to learnability and linguistics, and the otheris to formulate new research proposals and securing funding. The third aspect ofmy position requires me to act as ambassador for the Learnability programme andmake it visible to the international community by networking with otheruniversities.’

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Except for being the face of Learnability, Aboh is also enthusiastic aboutworking together with other research institutes. ‘One area of my work that I amreally involved in is the notion of brain and cognition, and how languages helpus understand the properties of our brain. A typical example of this is the workbeing done in neurolinguistics on bilinguals who suffer from aphasia and whouncontrollably switch from one language to the next. When one considers thatlanguage learners also typically mix languages, what then does that tell usabout the learning algorithm? Is it possible that the learning deviceautomatically generates theses mixed outputs, and that in our communities welearn how to control this tendency so as to be able to stick to one particularregister in a given language (e.g. formal vs. informal) or to one particularlanguage (e.g. English, French, Gungbe)? Also important: how do we model such alearning system? How can we account for the diffusion of newly created forms inthe community and how is that related to the emergence of linguistic as well ascultural norms? To help me understand this, I will need to work with researchersinvolved in evolutionary biology and genetics.’

Aboh also sees possibilities for collaboration in the field of culturalstudies. ‘If you examine the way learners change language, you realise thatlearning and change run in tandem.This phenomenon not only has a huge impactwith regard to linguistic knowledge, but also on our understanding of culture;how do we learn cultural conventions and taboos, and how can we account for thefact that culture is continually evolving? Assuming that change is inherentlypart of our learning algorithm, could it be that the change forming part of thelearning process is actually a way ensuring the survival of a culture? This isan aspect of my work I would like to jointly investigate with colleagues fromASCA.’

A bottom-up approach to teaching

As for his teaching duties, Aboh is currently responsible for several coursesat the MA level, including: ‘Perspectives on Universals’, where data isdescribed with the aim of investigating the language blueprint as well asproperties of what is (im)possible in human languages; and ‘Language Contact’,in which the focus is mainly on the structural changes that take place oncelanguages come into contact with one another, as well as issues likecode-switching and language mixing. ‘Unlike many universities I have beeninvolved with, the UvA has a bottom-up approach to teaching. As someone whocomes from a country with a very rigid academic system, I appreciate the factthat there is no hierarchy between lecturers and students. The fact thatstudents can easily challenge everything we say, ensures a healthy academicsetting and can sometimes leads to unexpected, productive partnerships.’


What are 4 reasons why language is important? ›

Here are ten reasons:
  • #1. Language is the primary method for human communication.
  • #2. Language encompasses the range of humanity.
  • #3. Language and culture are closely linked.
  • #4. Language can be weaponized.
  • #5. Language can reveal significant differences in people.
  • #6. Learning another language can make you smarter.
  • #7. ...
  • #8.

Why is language important in human life? ›

Speaking, writing and reading are integral to everyday life, where language is the primary tool for expression and communication. Studying how people use language – what words and phrases they unconsciously choose and combine – can help us better understand ourselves and why we behave the way we do.

What is the relationship between language and thought? ›

Language is a symbolic tool that we use to communicate our thoughts as well as represent our cognitive processes. Language is the mirror of thinking, and it is one of the ways in which we communicate our rich cognitive world.

How does language influence who you are? ›

The language you speak reflects what your values and beliefs are. According to anthropological linguist Daniel Everett, language can be considered a cultural tool to relate a community's values and ideals and is shaped and molded by these residents over time.

What are the 3 main purposes of language? ›

The informative, expressive, and directive purposes of language.

What are the 6 purposes of language? ›

185), there are six functions of language which are: referential function, emotive function, poetic function, conative function, phatic function, and also metalingual function.

What are the 5 roles of language? ›

According to Finocchiaro and Brumfit, there are five types of language functions based on their place, such as; Personal, Interpersonal, Directive, Referential, and Imaginative functions.

What is the role of language in intellectual development? ›

Through language, children make sense of experiences and the world around them. In fact, language is the foundation for most learning—whether it is factual knowledge, social skills, moral development, or physical achievement.

Did language play a role in human development? ›

Language is a very important part of the development of children. Not only are extremely important cognitive skills developed; language also is key in the social development of children. Social and linguistic development begin long before humans are mentally developed enough to speak.

Does language control our thoughts? ›

Language does not completely determine our thoughts—our thoughts are far too flexible for that—but habitual uses of language can influence our habit of thought and action. For instance, some linguistic practice seems to be associated even with cultural values and social institution.

What is the relationship between language and the human brain? ›

Certain parts of the brain are responsible for understanding words and sentences. These brain areas are mainly located in two regions, in the left side of the brain, and are connected by nerves. Together, these brain regions and their connections form a network that provides the hardware for language in the brain.

How does language affect critical thinking? ›

Language − Language and critical thinking grow together and nurture each other's development. As children engage in critical thinking, their language skills expand because they're encouraged to develop and use more complex language with words like “because”, phrases with “if” and “then” and different verb tenses.

How can language be powerful? ›

Language is a vital part of human connection. Although all species have their ways of communicating, humans are the only ones that have mastered cognitive language communication. Language allows us to share our ideas, thoughts, and feelings with others. It has the power to build societies, but also tear them down.

How does language shape our identity? ›

Languages symbolise identities and are used to signal identities by those who speak them. People are also categorised by other people according to the language they speak. People belong to many social groups and have many social identities.

How does language connect every person? ›

Language connects people in more ways than one. It allows us to share our thoughts and feelings in ways that are more meaningful than speaking or writing. It allows us to express ourselves in ways that can't always be done through nonverbal communication.

What are the three pillars of language? ›

Pillars of progression in the curriculum: phonics, vocabulary, grammar.

What are the 7 characteristics of language? ›

Language can have scores of characteristics but the following are the most important ones: language is arbitrary, productive, creative, systematic, vocalic, social, non-instinctive and conventional. These characteristics of language set human language apart from animal communication.

What happens after a language comes into contact with another? ›

One of the main outcomes of language contact is interference. It occurs when speakers of a language adopt semantic, phonetic or syntactic features of the language they come in contact with. This phenomenon occurred to Spanish in Argentina.

What is the real purpose of language? ›

In most accounts, the primary purpose of language is to facilitate communication, in the sense of transmission of information from one person to another.

What are the 6 C's of effective language? ›

Drafting involves writing consistently in a formal, casual, or informal style characterized by the “Six Cs”: clarity, conciseness, coherence, correctness, courtesy, and conviction.

What are the key elements of language? ›

Linguists have identified five basic components (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics) found across languages.

What are the 8 functions of language? ›

  • Emotive Language. Uses connotative words to express the feelings, attitudes, and emotions of a speaker.
  • Phatic Language. Social task, greetings, farewells, small talk.
  • Cognitive Language. Tends to be denotative; conveys information.
  • Rhetorical Language. ...
  • Identifying Language. ...
  • Denotative Language. ...
  • Connotative Meanings. ...
  • Slang.

What are the functions of language in cognitive psychology? ›

In cognitive psychology, language plays an essential role in understanding the cognitive processes of any given person. Its importance is easy to recognize when looking at thinking and interactions with the help of different psychological approaches.

Why language plays a central role in mental development? ›

Vygotsky viewed language as an essential tool for communication and that culture and behaviour was understood through language. Vygotsky also highlighted the critical role that language plays in cognitive development. Vygotsky's theory says that social interactions help children develop their ability to use language.

How does language transform humanity? ›

Language allows you to implant a thought from your mind directly into someone else's mind, and [that person] can attempt to do the same to you, without either of you having to perform surgery.” So says biologist Mark Pagel in his July 2011 TED talk “How Language Transformed Humanity.”

Why is language considered the most important human invention? ›

Language is regularly credited with being the greatest achievement of humankind. It allows us to communicate intricate, complex ideas and (even in the simplest terms) deep emotions, with very little effort.

Does language rewire the brain? ›

“Because the language centers in the brain are so flexible, learning a second language can develop new areas of your mind and strengthen your brain's natural ability to focus."

Does language affect consciousness? ›

Many classical scholars assign to language the role of kingmaker when it comes to consciousness. That is, language use is thought to either directly enable consciousness or to be one of the signature behaviors associated with consciousness.

How languages change your brain? ›

Everyone's brain is made up of neurons, which have a cell body, and dendrites, which are the connections between neurons. This is what we call “grey matter.” Bilingual people have more of these neurons and dendrites compared to people who speak only one language. This means that their grey matter is denser.

Does learning a language train your brain? ›

Learning a new language not only trains our brains' executive functions, but also allows for a higher level of empathy and the ability to connect with those with different linguistic backgrounds from ours.

How does language affect thought and action? ›

Language influences thought and action. The words we use to describe things—to ourselves and others—affects how we and they think and act. It's good to remind ourselves that this powerful influence happens in all kinds of situations and most certainly with language related to teaching and learning.

How does language affect cognitive development? ›

In Vygotsky's view, the acquisition of language is a crucial part of cognitive development. After children acquire language, they don't just go through a set series of stages. Rather, their cognitive development depends on interactions with adults, cultural norms, and their environmental circumstances.

Why is language a powerful weapon? ›

For centuries, language has been a powerful tool. Politicians have spoken words that inspire thousands to violence, and the subjectivity of language has allowed some of them get away with it. Ordinary people fling words that have effects that they understand, but contexts that they do not. Language has been a weapon.

What is positive power of language? ›

The way you express yourself affects whether your message is received positively or negatively. This has a huge influence on the response you are likely to get. Even when you are conveying unwelcome news, the impact can be softened by using positive language.

What is the most powerful language of all time? ›

The Most Powerful Languages in the World
  • Chinese: 1.51 billion people (native speakers: 899 million; second language speakers: 178 million)
  • English 840 million people (native speakers: 330 million; second language speakers: 510 million)
Oct 27, 2019

What does language reveal about a person? ›

Language exposes many facets of a person's identity, it determines how we interact with other people. Ethnic and social identity assumes an important part in which language controls how we perceive the world, no matter what the mother tongue is.

What is the relationship between language and power? ›

Language–Power Relationships

In the former, language is viewed as having no power of its own and yet can produce influence and control by revealing the power behind the speaker. Language also reflects the collective/historical power of the language community that uses it.

Does language give us identity? ›

As a means of communicating values, beliefs and customs, it has an important social function and fosters feelings of group identity and solidarity. It is the means by which culture and its traditions and shared values may be conveyed and preserved. Language is fundamental to cultural identity.

How does language reflect power? ›

Institutionalized power determines the way we speak and guides the conversations that we have. Through language, power makes itself known via state messaging and sets the tone for social interactions with the use of predetermined wording and phrases.

How does language unite people? ›

It is the way by which people communicate with one another, build relationships, and create a sense of community. There are roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world today, and each is unique in a number of ways. Communication is a core component of any society, and language is an important aspect of that.

What are the five purpose of language? ›

According to Finocchiaro and Brumfit, there are five types of language functions based on their place, such as; Personal, Interpersonal, Directive, Referential, and Imaginative functions.

What are the five important of language? ›

The importance of language is that it helps to question, provide answers to questions, communicate thoughts and desires, and understand the expression and feelings of others. Communication is possible via tone of voice, gestures, emotions, expressions and no doubt words.

What are 5 of the most important languages around the world? ›

  • French: a language of major cultural importance. ...
  • Arabic: the second language of the business world. ...
  • Spanish: a language on the up. ...
  • Hindi: one of the most widespread official languages of India. ...
  • Mandarin Chinese: the language with the most native speakers. ...
  • English: the language of communications par excellence.
Apr 5, 2022

What is the most important thing in language? ›


Learning a language can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be. Ask anyone with true language learning experience and they will tell you that the one thing that is more important than anything else is spoken practice.

What is the power function of language? ›

Language Power consists of two key components: 1) an ability to speak and be understood, and 2) an ability to listen and understand. Individuals with strong language power possess the ability to communicate effectively in a social environment.

What are the 5 C's of world languages? ›

The five “C” goal areas (Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities) stress the application of learning a language beyond the instructional setting.

Which of the four language skills is most important? ›

Employers say that the most important language skill is reading (in 12 industries) and then speaking (in eight industries). Reading in English is important for developing professional knowledge. It's the language most often used in international publications, contracts and instructions.

What is the most powerful language in the world? ›

First Language

Mandarin Chinese tops the list of most commonly spoken native languages with 870 million native speakers. With less than 200 million second language speakers, the vast majority of Mandarin speakers are native and also located in mainland China.

What are the 3 most useful languages? ›

English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic are widely recognized as some of the most important languages due to their global reach and the number of people who speak them.

What is the most logical language? ›

Lojban (pronounced [ˈloʒban] ( listen)) is a logical, constructed, human language created by the Logical Language Group which aims to be syntactically unambiguous. It succeeds the Loglan project. la . lojban.

What are the four vital skills in learning a language? ›

When we say that someone 'speaks' a language fluently, we usually mean that they have a high level in all four skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing.

What is the most important language in the world and why? ›

Mandarin Chinese

The language that tops our list of most important languages in the World is Mandarin Chinese.


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