In Praise of Strong Language Skill

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2017


How important strong language skill is to human distinctiveness

I have written on this before, but I feel it is worth going over again: the core of what makes humans distinctive as a species is our strong language skill. We are what we are today because we have learned to talk so well. The ripple effects of language are immense.

Language as an invention

To get into the right frame of mind think of language as a high tech invention. Successful high tech inventions start with a first use -- one that gets first adopter people paying attention and investing. I call this the "commodity use". Then, if the invention is world-shaking, that first use is followed by "surprise uses". These are the kind where lots of people beyond first adopters say, "You can do that with it too? Neat!" These are the uses that make it history making. And if it is Big History Making those surprise uses are followed by ripple effects -- lots of other activities that get changed by the availability of the invention.

Here is how this model applies to language skill.

Commodity use:

Saying "Danger!" faster, better and cheaper.

Think of a bird chirping to alert his fellow birds to a cat prowling nearby. The chirp can alert, but that's about it. Compare that to a human saying to a fellow human, "Tomorrow, behind that tree over there (pointing) is going to be a big guy with a club. Watch out for him!" That is "Danger!" faster, better and cheaper.

Surprise use:


A human can use strong language skill to teach other humans, in particular young children. This means that knowledge can be passed efficiently from generation to generation. And as language skill grows the breadth and precision of what can be taught keeps growing as well.

Ripple effects:

Wow! So many!

o Making a big brain more valuable: If neat discoveries don't die with the person that makes the discovery, then discovering becomes more valuable.

o Making old people more valuable because of their memory abilities. This shows up distinctively as women living long after menopause.

o Intensive child care: If that big brained person is born more helpless then child care becomes more important.

o Writing as well as speaking: First as a memory aid, then as a format for all kinds of creative expression.


Yes, strong language skill has made a big difference in the course of human history, and now all the Earth's flora and fauna. And these differences are not finished yet. It has been a world-shaking invention by all measures.

Update: This 31 May 18 Economist article, A history of big-headedness, describes current thinking on this topic. The importance of strong language skill is not yet recognized.



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