How does language make us human?

We use language every day without thinking about it. We speak, read, and maybe even think in our language. If we consider what language is and how it works, we realise that it is an incredible ability. It makes us different from all other animals on Earth.


Human language is all languages that are spoken by people. This includes sign languages and spoken languages all over the world. There are more than 7000 human languages. Human languages can sound very different from each other, and we don’t always understand someone else’s language. However, all human languages have important features in common. These include:

–    Displacement: humans can talk about things that they can’t see in their surroundings. This includes things in the past and future, and thoughts and ideas.

–   Cultural transmission: humans learn their language from other humans. A child usually learns the language of their parents.

–     Infiniteness: humans can use words to make an unlimited number of sentences. This means that language can be used to express any thought.


If we hear an animal make a noise, for example a dog barking, we might believe that it is ‘saying’ something. It is true that animals can communicate. Some animals do this in very complex ways which have some similarities with human languages. However, no animal language has all the features of human language.

For example, a dog may make different sounds when it is hungry and when it is afraid. However, a dog cannot tell you that it was hungry yesterday. It cannot tell this to another dog, either. Therefore, it lacks displacement. Also, the dog can only communicate certain things. It can tell you it is hungry, but it cannot tell you what it would like to eat. This means that its language is not infinite.

Bees have very special ways to communicate. Honey bees perform a ‘waggle dance’ to other bees. This dance can tell the other bees where to find food, and how far away it is. Therefore, bees can communicate displacement. However, bees do not learn their dance from other bees. It is instinctive, not culturally transmitted.


Some other animals walk on two legs, socialise with friends and family, and do other things that humans do. Some animals even communicate in complex ways. However, no other animal has true ‘language’.

Language allows humans to cooperate with each other. We can share plans, ideas, and knowledge. This means we can build civilisations and communities. This article is using language for education. These abilities have made humans a very successful species. 



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