IS LANGUAGE REALLY INTUITIVE?

Over the centuries, the above topic has been a serious argument between linguists concerning the intuitive nature of language in the world. The question now is what does it really mean when language is said to be an intuitive phenomenon?

As Chomsky (1977) contends “the child in his initial state is uninformed as to the language speech community in which he lives.” He further argues that certainly the child is endowed with some set of mechanisms (i.e. language faculty), what the Swiss linguistic scholar, De Saussure called ‘facult de language’ in 1910. In this sense according to Chomsky child is innately born with predisposition or capacity for language acquisition. This faculty is said to be located at the left hemisphere of the child. Chomsky in this case classified among those scholars who believe in inborn knowledge of language. Also according to Nigerian applied linguist, Olaoye (2008), a child has innate or inborn ability or capacity to acquire any language. This inborn mechanism according to him is known as Language Acquisition Device (LAD).

Against these notions of inborn nature of language are the behaviourists, who believe that language acquisition is not a mental phenomenon but has to do with behaviour based on stimulus-response. That is, language is acquired through the stimulus-response of an individual.

Sapir(1921) contends that language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communication ideas, emotions, and desires by means of voluntarily produced symbols. Language In this sense, therefore is common to only human and even natural since it is only human beings that have ability to use utterances to express their ideas, emotions and desires.

However, some scholars further argue that, if language is said to be natural and dedicated to human alone as presupposed by the naturists, it would be a wrong view due to the fact that other apes and animals communicate among themselves using language. This view was challenged by Lyon (1968) that these animals and apes communicate between themselves using onomatopoeic sound. That is no animal or ape makes use of language but merely onomatopoeic sounds. In supporting this view, O’Grandy propounded thirteen designed features of language, which all said to be common to human being alone and no any other apes or animals achieve all these features.

These features include: interchangeability, arbitrariness, feedback, displacement, duality of patterning, specialization, discreteness, tradition, reflexiveness, prevarication; learnability, productivity and semanticity. Among all these, the duality of patterning was found never to be common to other apes or animals but only humans. Duality of patterning implies the ability of the users to put together meaningless units (i.e. phonemes) to form arbitrary signs, which can be used to form meaningful larger units like sentence.

The argument upon the intuitive nature of language has often been traced to centuries ago, when a Sanskrit linguistic scholar, Panini, who lived between 520-460 BC, proposed that language is not to be regarded as having intuitive structure. His notion later led to the establishment of two philosophical schools Aristotle and Stoic. The former believed that everything in humans including language is inborn or natural. This school is referred to as Analogist philosophical school. The latter in the other hand followed the view of Panini and denied language to be natural; with the view that language can even be created by man. This is also referred to as Anomalist philosophical school.

From a sound observation so far, if language is said to be non-natural phenomenon and can be created by man as being argued by the conventionalists, who follow the Panini’s view, how many of these machines created by man can acquire, speak and even make use of utterances like man so far? We have actually seen the technological development in the world today like recent discoveries and development of robotic machine, which follows human instruction to act and even deliver messages, but this does not make robot machine to acquire language other than that created into it by man. Human beings have been successful in using language to refer to the past, present and future events and much more in creativities like combining meaningless units (phonemes) to form arbitrary signs, which also are used to form meaningful larger ones like sentences. Animals and other apes never achieve these natural gifts. Human beings use language to think logically to arrive at sound or effective decision-making, while the so-called robotic machines never achieve this other than the decision given to them to carryout by man.
From these arguments and discoveries so far, language from a clear observation, is natural which means that human beings are innately born with such faculty to acquire.

Abubakar Jimoh
Department of Linguistics
University of Abuja
abujimoh01@gmail.com

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