What is it that makes us truly humans? Is it language? Answer to that kind of questions is certainly much more complicated, but it seems that language is of central importance in who we are and what we can achieve.
From time to time the world resounds with news concerning so-called feral (or wild) children – people growing up in isolation from human society, in animals’ care or held in captivity where they have only limited, indirect contact with other humans.
Literary examples of feral children are among others the legendary founders of Rome, Remus and Romulus, and the character from „The Jungle Book”, Mowgli. But while literary characters are usually doing quite OK, real feral children – if they don’t come back to a human society in time – irrecoverably lose the ability to master one of the most important human capacities, the language.
Rare cases of feral children that had been analysed and not exactly effectively brought back to the society, became a grounding for a theory of so-called critical period in language acquisition. Based on observation of feral children and often not very successful attempts to teaching them human languages, psychologists and linguists framed a theory according to which a human beings are capable of easy and effortless language acquisition only during first several years of their lives. If they don’t have any contact with other people during that critical period and thus the language acquisition can’t take place, when they enter the puberty, language learning becomes extremely hard for them, if not totally impossible.
Feral children often behave more like animals than human beings. They move around in a way very similar to the animals that they were growing up with, they act like animals and communicate with them quite successfully. Re-entering a typically human environment often does not really change much in their behaviour, especially when such children are found to late – after their critical period in language acquisition has already ended and when socialisation is really aggravated. Some of those children are not even able to master such basic skills like using the toilet or eating with a fork and most of them have severe troubles with understanding and obeying human customs and social rules. It seems that lack of language skills interrupts with the development of typically human intellectual abilities and understanding of human social life.
So, is the language a crucial part of our humanity? Certainly it’s the language that makes us really different from other animals. Thanks to development of language human thinking and perception of the world changed dramatically – consequently allowing us to create complex societies and build civilisations. So is it language that makes us who we are? It seems that the answer to that question is positive.