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my mental health is deteriorating a bit.

I just want to know why I can understand language and use it so easily to communicate to other human creatures without even trying.

Is it just an “instrument of communication” given to me by Mother Nature? Why do I use it in my own head? What do cats think about in their heads then?

Thank you for your time

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    A good question. And a good place to start would be Chomsky's exegesis on Plato's problem.
    – Rushi
    Dec 16, 2023 at 4:28
  • Better ref: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato%27s_problem
    – Rushi
    Dec 16, 2023 at 4:46
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    It's because of billions of years of evolution, which started off with something like a click or a tap in response to danger, and that slowly got more and more complex over many generations, paired with increasing mental capability.
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 16, 2023 at 7:17
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    Why do you use it in your own head - my theory is that we can model others in our minds, predict their speech and behavior. This comes from or else creates (or both) our ability to model our own speech and behavior, because prediction can save us from making mistakes. We can use it by making up stories and telling them, like an author creates characters and plots without forgetting which 'one' they themselves are.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 16, 2023 at 13:14
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    The human brain has evolved the capacity to use language, and you learned language as an infant and young child by being exposed to it. innate capacity + learning = bingo. Dec 17, 2023 at 2:50

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I am sorry to read that your mental health is deteriorating, and wonder how it may be related to your question. To my mind, the fact that we are endowed with capacities which we may not be able to completely understand or explain (such as language proficiency) ought to be a cause for awe and gratefulness. If I discovered one day that I have the capacity to levitate, I think it would make me happy, even if I could not explain it.

About language, note that you most probably do not understand all languages, for that would be truly miraculous. I assume you understand English and perhaps a few other languages that you have learnt.

So a basic and somewhat simplistic answer to your question is: you understand English because you learnt it. There was a time when you did not understand any language, even though you can't remember it now.

Presumably, there was also a time, prior to the invention of language, when no human being understood any language.

So perhaps the real puzzle is: how come we can learn any language we want, and then use it to communicate more or less effectively with other locutors? Or more generally, whence our capacity to manipulate symbols to communicate or model our experience of the world? Whence logos?

Is logos embedded in the world, and merely rediscovered by us human beings, or is it entirely a human creation? Similar to the question of whether mathematics are discovered or invented.

I have no answer to that question. It does not affect my mental health. I'm learning Italian at the moment and that's a challenge at my age, but it is so beautiful and rewarding -- e.g. in being able to read books never translated into English, or to watch Italian movies in original version -- that I keep trucking. Language is a blessing, not a curse.

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    @Oliver5 I have come to conclusion. Basically, walking is a learned skill that I once couldn’t do, but now I just do it without second thought. It is automatic. Like riding a bike. I don’t question why I can do those things and why they are possible, I just accept that I can do it, and do them. So I think the same about language, I have learnt it and now I can just do it, like I can just ride a bike. I’ll leave “why” to the mystery of the creation of the human mind.
    – Fraser Pye
    Dec 16, 2023 at 9:11
  • @FraserPye Nicely put.
    – Olivier5
    Dec 16, 2023 at 9:14
  • Nice helpful answer. But why the last sentence? Doesn't seem related to the question
    – Rushi
    Dec 16, 2023 at 9:31
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    @Rushi The last sentence refers to the anguish apparently stemming from the mysteries of language, in the OP.
    – Olivier5
    Dec 16, 2023 at 10:33
  • The notion of whether language is discovered or created is exactly the same as the mathematics one. Mathematics is really just a very precise language that we created to talk about regularities we observe.
    – Three Diag
    Dec 17, 2023 at 13:33
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Language is a tool developed to communicate sensory information. Language consists of combination of signs of the six senses ,that is , visual signs, verbal signs, auditory signs, touch signs , mental signs, olfactory signs, taste signs. Languages can have a dictionary. Complex languages are built upon simple languages , for example , we first learn alphabets then simple words then complex words and then sentences etc . There are many kinds of languages for each sense organ.

We learn languages , which means we learn to understand it. When we encounter a language sign, it is “processed” at lightening speed before developing an understanding of its meaning. Your mental health is deteriorating. This is not good. But it happens with age. Old people may partially or totally loose the capacity to understand. At young age ,it is possible to catch a sensory disease leading to problems in understanding. (I suggest you consult a Allopathic or ayurvedic Doctor to improve mental health)

It appears that we understand what we have learned and will continue to understand ,till we die at least. But that is not the case. We can loose our ability to understand.

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I just want to know why I can understand language and use it so easily to communicate to other human creatures without even trying.

The only reason I can understand language is because I learned it when I was very little. I can't remember the details, because I learned to form concepts at the time, so I didn't have the ones I would have needed to describe the process.

Your question is still an area for active research. Two books that I have found useful are The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker, and The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization, by the late Michael Corballis.

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Language as a skill

There is a lot to go into here, but the first thing I would remark is that language is a taught skill. You spent two or three years becoming conversational in it enough to advocate for some needs, 10 or so more years becoming able to express abstract concepts and relations in it, and then you might have spent 5 to 10 years becoming able to do it professionally after that.

The most important reason why you find it easy is because you have done it for a long time. It's just the same as how I struggle with guitar at 38 and some 18 year olds can play anything: I only got into guitar in my thirties and I have to juggle my practice around a full-time professional career, parenting a toddler, and a wide diversity of other interests. That 18 year old has been able to just pick the thing up and practice for hours a day every day, she has a band, she covers Taylor Swift on TikTok for likes. You can invoke other explanations, maybe the kid is genetically better at music as well, but probably the biggest reason is that she has played a hundred times as much as I have.

At its most basic, language is not directly a skill only found in humans—there are all sorts of different communication mechanisms in different species, many communicating emotional states and needs and in some cases how to solve problems (scent trails from ants come to mind there, and bumblebee dances), and in others warning of danger (famously, the smell of cut grass).

However, it is the case that human language typically expresses things that are significantly more abstract than the language of other animals, such as the importance of people having the freedom to be secure in their persons and possessions against unreasonable searches and seizures by military and police presences due to the social value of an assumption of privacy. I don't know for a fact what dolphins talk about: but I suspect it's significantly less abstract than that, yes?

Language as cultural leverage

So this raises a couple of genuinely interesting questions about the philosophy of language. But the absolute first observation needs to be that those conversations about abstract topics seem to have been much more rare in history than they are today. Computing legend Alan Kay puts it like this: “Perspective is worth 80 points of IQ.” what he means is if you happen to have a good perspective on a problem, you can do things which somebody who does not share that perspective cannot do, even if your IQ is 100 and theirs is 180. One of his favorite examples of such a smart person is Leonardo da Vinci, who was a complete genius, who could not invent a working engine. Now if I just ask you to do it, on the spot, you would probably struggle. But Leonardo was not making it on the spot, it was a lifelong goal. And if you spent your life on it, you would probably remember that pistons have something to do with it, that early engines were based on steam but modern engines are based on gasoline, you know about the different phases of matter, solid liquid and gas, you could probably build some sort of prototype with a lot of tinkering. Alan Kay then invites us to imagine you being dropped into the Stone Age, how “you would be the first burned at the stake for witchcraft!”.

Those examples are not precisely linguistic per se but language is an important part of them. Language is a tool which the culture uses to, among other things, coordinate work in certain directions. The abstract language that I gave above of “freedom to be secure,” or “unreasonable searches,” or “assumption of privacy,” are idiomatic for my culture, and my culture gives precise language to talk about it. The language has co-evolved with the culture. This gives the people inside the culture an extra leverage to precisely coordinate their efforts in the ways that the culture considers important. We can talk philosophy because our culture values the metanarrative, and provides me words like “metanarrative” to express ideas that would otherwise seem bewilderingly ill-defined.

Language as double-sided

At the heart of this cultural power is a practice which we do without even being fully aware that we are doing it, the practice of interpretation. We like to think that a given text has more or less one meaning, unless it was deliberately constructed to be sarcastic or ironic or perhaps to hide that we don't know what we're talking about. But something like “Mum popped off to the shops around three; but she’ll be back by six,” we regard this as ambiguous only in a couple of really trivial ways: we don't know who the speaker is and who they consider to be “Mum,” the actual times in UTC depend a lot on whether they are English or Australian, and are probably approximate, maybe she started putting on her shoes at 2:35 but didn't actually make it out the door until 3:47 but the speaker was playing video games throughout and thus wasn't paying very close attention to the clock during this process.

This masks what is now understood to be a vital creative component of listening to a communication or reading a text, and has to do with cultural fluency. So, get a friend who is on the autism spectrum and that can often help you rapidly appreciate how frequently we use language with some ambiguities that we expect the listener to fill in.

Our brains were not grown in identical vats with identical stimuli—at least, not as far as we are aware. Your brain grew up in a different template than mine and while some wiring is probably genetic, we know the brain is highly “neuroplastic” and therefore a lot of it is probably not. So for you, we could hypothetically number your neurons and find out that red is encoded by, say, activations on neurons 268849 and 38721144, specifically when they activate either neurons 5071 or 91063662. But then if you apply a similar numbering scheme in my brain, you would find that those neurons have nothing to do with color at all in my brain. So we are literally wired differently, and yet language has to abstract away this entire hardware rewrite of our fundamental operating systems.

The key skill to bridge this gap is generating a bunch of personal meanings that could have been intended by the author, and using context to try to figure out which is the most likely. And that happens a little bit on both sides, to write this comment I am trying to imagine how somebody who does not think like me, will read it. and that's why I put the unnecessary comma, in the previous sentence, even though I know it is poor grammar. “if you don't think like me, you might keep parsing this subjunctive mood all the way through and then get very confused and you might have all sorts of weird interpretations of what I am saying. If I put a comma there, then you will likely either derail with a comment about my grammar which I can safely ignore, or you will quietly understand that I wouldn't have meant the subjunctive to go further than that comma.”

Fully appreciating this skill requires us to shake our heads at someone saying something as ludicrous as, say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Why? Seems perfectly reasonable! Except that there is a vast cultural difference between my ears and the pen of the scribe writing Hebrew in 500 BC or whenever it was. I have an active role in trying to come up with ideas about what they might mean, and an active role in trying to filter those ideas, and I am trying to augment that role with the expertise of some translator sitting between me and the text, but also untold generations of copying mistakes and actual editing and whatever else has come between. Socrates, in Plato’s Protagoras, laments that writing will lead to the death of knowledge (!) because Socrates liked to practice the Socratic method and you can't ask a book to clarify what it meant.

So the illusion of univocality—“Mum popped down to the shops” meaning exactly one thing, speaking with “one voice,” uni-vocal—comes from us having a very close cultural relationship with the speaker and finding it very easy to do our side of the work of coming up with alternate meanings. We would be shocked if “Mum” meant the Queen Mother and “popped down to the shops” somehow referred to her death so that the time references of “Mum popped off to the shops around three; but she’ll be back by six,” basically indicate an opinion that Britain would experience upheaval and change, but only for a very short time before it's all business as usual again. And yet, I am, in this paragraph, constructing surrounding text such that in that context, maybe that's exactly what is being articulated by that sentence. It’s a weird paragraph! But hey.

This complex “theory of mind” and the multivocality of our utterances are probably the most distinctive aspect of how we as humans communicate. This is what you don't see so much in scent trails left by ants, or a wolf howl. If you are going to draw a distinction between raw communication and linguistic communication, this would be my first candidate distinction.

There remains the question of why we as humans are so good at it, and as far as I know the best evolutionary explanation comes from our time as endurance hunters in Africa. So we are “naked apes” precisely so that we could chase after an animal during the heat of midday until it would exhaust itself and then we could kill it. The story says that our brains got good at psychologizing other animals to determine where they would have turned, if it disappeared before a junction and we didn't know if it had turned left or right. And the idea is that this turned out to be a transferable skill to cooperating within our social packs. (An alternative explanation holds that there was a major drought in the region and we had to either psychologize other animals to discover where they thought water was, or perhaps we simply generated a logical scheme which was “Turing complete,” just complex enough that it turns out arbitrary ideas could be represented in those primitives.)

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Our native language is one of the things which were learned mostly before our conscious memories formed. Therefore, we do not remember it, and it seems like a natural gift to us. If we watch little children learning to speak though, we realize that we, too, must have gone through this sometimes quite difficult learning process. A lot of other things are learned at that age: We can decode other people's emotions, we know where our body ends and the outer world starts, we know how to move our limbs in a purposeful way, we construct a three-dimensional model of the world around us and match what we see with how we move, etc. etc. When we watch infants flailing, when we watch them being unable to visually focus on anything in their first weeks, we realize that none of this is a given. It all develops in the course of everyday interactions.

Many of these skills (moving about purposefully, communicating with others) are essential to our being. They are learned from day 1 (or, actually, already in the womb) and influence our neural makeup. An embryo's and infant's brain is not hard-wired yet in the sense that an adult's is. While the infant is learning, synapses are formed, neural regions which are stimulated are strengthened, unused ones are weakened. Our nervous system (including the brain) and our body forms according to the environment we grow up in, so that they are well-suited to it. That's why moving in our accustomed environment and speaking our native language feels so natural to us: It is.

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