The Key Features of Language

When a dog barks, a cat meows, a cow moos, or a chicken clucks there is little doubt that some form of communication is taking place, but do these sounds constituted language? According to the standard definition of language, the answer is simply “no”. Communication must be communicative, arbitrary, structured, generative and dynamic to be deemed language (Willingham, 2007). Animal sounds permit communication, appear arbitrary, and could be considered dynamic; nevertheless, animal communication is not structured—only composing a single sound—and is not generative. Furthermore, of particular interest to the overlapping of human cognitive functions and language assimilation, is the mental dictionary that contains all of the stored representations of words, the lexicon. These lexical entries store the pronunciation, spelling, and part of speech for every word that has been assimilated; what’s more, humans appear to recognize words by cross-comparing what they perceive audibly with these entries. As to the subject of animal communication, humans compare the sounds that come from the animals with the stored lexicon to determine if the sounds constitute a known language. Additionally, a thorough understanding of language is more complicated than the standard definition of language and the idea of a lexicon but encompasses the key features of language, the four levels of language structure and processing, and the role of language processing in cognitive psychology.        

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Key Features of Language

There appears to be a critical period of development in which humans are innately predisposed to the assimilation of the grammar and syntax of language. A classic study conducted by Jackie Johnson and Elissa Newport to Chinese and Korean immigrants to the United States concluded that at or around the age of 16 the ability to easily learn a new language decreases drastically, specifically the ability to become extremely fluent in English syntax. In addition, language seems to be a specifically human attribute, even excluding our close genetic relatives, the primates. It is clear that primates use some symbolic level of communication to converse; however, the fact still remains that primates do not use anything like the language that humans use every day, nor are they capable of learning grammatical language. Primates seem to be quite adept at memorizing the surface structure of language and using it in limited circumstances, but they are not capable of ascertaining the deep structure of language and then transforming the underlying meanings of language to other phrases. In short, they are good at understanding words, not language. All told, the lack of grammatical comprehension and reproduction is as deficient in animals, as it is innately predisposed in human children and adolescents. 

Levels of Language Structure 

There are four primary levels of language: phonemes, words, sentences, and texts. Phonemes are the individual sounds that constitute the audible and written reproduction of words. There are about 46 phonemes in the English language, but about 200 phonemes are used worldwide in human language. In turn, the 46 English phonemes can be combined, through the laws of grammar and syntax, to create approximately 600,000 words. Through the aforementioned lexicon, humans have the ability to determine the spelling, pronunciation, and part of speech of each word; therefore, giving humans the means through which to construct coherent sentences complete with a noun phrase and verb phrase. It is at this point in language structure that the meaningful creation of actual text is possible. The grammar that governs text creation seems to be logical rather than sequential, meaning that it does not matter so much that sentences follow a particular stream of conjunctive adverbs, but that the sentences logically flow from one to the next. In sum, the 46 phonemes of the English language can be combined, according to the laws of grammar and syntax, to create approximately 600,000 words, which can, in turn, be constructed into sentences, as an extension of lexical entries, and can finally be assembled into texts that follow a logical flow.        

Language Processing and Ambiguity

The obstacle of language comprehension is largely a problem of perception, rather than a problem of actual structure or articulation. For instance, if a person were to look at the spectral analysis of speech they would quickly realize that there are no audible breaks between words, which beg the question: how do we know when one word ends and another begins? Humans resolve this example of language ambiguity through the use of phonemic cues at the beginning and the end of words. According to the motor theory of speech perception, humans largely rely on processes of speech production to resolve language ambiguity in speech assessment. A further complication of language perception is the phenomenon of coarticulation in phonemes. For instance, one phoneme can be pronounced differently or be semantically cued by other words in a sentence. This type of language ambiguity is overcome by the rules of grammar and word syntax, which govern the placement of particular phonemes within words and particular words within sentences. In brief, the speech stream nature of language and phenomenon of coarticulation can be surmounted through the mechanisms of phonemic cueing and the rules of grammar and word syntax, respectively. 

Language Processing in Cognitive Psychology

The most extreme version of the Whorfian hypothesis stipulates that language literally determines our perception of reality. This radical form of the Whorfian hypothesis has received little support in the psychological community, for lack of evidence; however, a milder form of the hypothesis has been substantiated through methodologically rich experimentation. Language appears to have a biasing effect on a few cognitive functions, such as color naming and memory representations. In the area of color naming, several studies found that language is quite significant in determining the types of color mismatches that people of different languages will make. A deceased color naming vocabulary brings about color ambiguity when colors are very close together; whereas, with languages that have an enumeration of terms for color shades ambiguity is lessened. From these and other studies like them, it is clear that language acts as a sort of filter, preconditioning and categorizing our thoughts and perceptions (Fritz & Fritz, 1985). In the area of memory representations language determines, at least to some extent, what descriptive words we choose to associate with what nouns. If our language emphasizes material over shape, then we might describe a tree as made of wood rather than tall. Moreover, language structure and competency seems to have a substantial impact on cognitive development in children and adolescents (Sevinc & Turner, 1976). For example, similarities in language prejudice similarities in the representation of attribute and difference relations. Altogether, language is highly correlated with fine color differentiation, choice of descriptive words, and cognitive development; but is not the sole, direct precondition to thought, only a biasing agent. 


In conclusion, the standard definition of language—which explains that communication must be communicative, arbitrary, structured, generative, and dynamic in order to be considered language; and the concept of lexical entries, mental entries that form the basis for our understanding of language—are only the foundational elements of language. Above and beyond that, language is a specifically human attribute, predisposed innately from birth, but can only be optimally assimilation during a critical period of development—childhood and adolescence. Language exists on several levels, of which phonemes, words, sentences, and texts are of specific interest. Furthermore, humans overcome different types of language ambiguity, such as the speech stream effect and coarticulation, through phonemic cueing and the laws of grammar and syntax. Lastly, it is clear that language has a biasing effect on a few cognitive functions, such as fine color differentiation and memory representations. In all, language has a significant impact on some very specific cognitive functions, but on the whole, language is more of a mediating agent then a causal agent of psychological processes. 

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Fritz, J.M., Fritz, R.C. (1985). Linguistic structure and economic method. Journal of Economic Issues, 19(1), 75-101. Retrieved August 11, 2009, from EBSCOHost Database. 

Sevinc, M., Turner, C. (1976). Language and the latent structure of cognitive development. International Journal of Psychology, 11(4), 231. Retrieved August 11, 2009, from EBSCOHost Database. 

Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal. New York, NY: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Paper Topic

  • Prepare a 1,050 to 1,400-word paper in which you examine language as it relates to cognition.
  • Address the following:
  • Define language and lexicon.
    • Evaluate the key features of language.
    • Describe the four levels of language structure and processing.
    • Analyze the role of language processing in cognitive psychology.

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