In this new video as part of our We Grow Languages series, we explain why the project is called We Grow Languages and why we are so interested in how human languages evolve.


Video transcript:

Why is the project called ‘We grow languages’?

We’re interested in how languages evolve – we want to know what it looks like when people create new ways of communicating and how those new communication systems change over time. To do this, we get people into the lab and ask them to make up new words or gestures to describe objects or events. Then, we see how those miniature languages change when people learn them, or use them to communicate with others.

Why not just look at languages out in the real world?

Looking at languages in the real world is an important part of our research, as it helps us to understand what different structures exist in different languages. But that doesn’t tell us why those different structures exist, or what language looked like in earlier stages of human history, before we have written records. We use experiments in the lab as our ‘petri dish’, a model of the communication we see in the real world that we can control and manipulate to understand the factors that affect how language evolves.

Why do we need to know how language evolves?

Humans are unique in the way we use language to communicate, so understanding how language evolves tells us something important about the history of our species. For example, we think that the way language is structured is adapted to our learning abilities, which tells us something very interesting about our evolution—that our behaviours themselves are adaptable, flexible and part of what makes us us.