On Human Language: our social operating system

On Human Language: our social operating system

September 20, 2019

One of my favorite quotes from the field of learning theory is the famous dictum from the brilliant Russian thinker, Lev Vygotsky, who championed the idea that children do not learn in automaton-like fashion, driven by an internal mechanism, but through the human interactions into which each child’s life becomes increasingly interwoven from birth. Vygotsky claimed that “through others, we become ourselves (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 105).”

Human society is innately and inextricably connected. We are socialized from before birth: the unborn fetus knows the sound of its mother’s voice. In the post-natal years, children explore their world through the senses by interacting with the adults and other children with whom they have contact. Helpless in ways that are unique to humans, our social bonds, beginning with our parents, provide the lifeline that leads into adult independent life.

The tool or artefact that facilitates our interconnectivity, the human societal ‘operating system’, if you will, is language – at all levels and through all means aural, visual, tactile, even olfactory. We are constantly emitting and receiving ‘signals’ from those around us; even phenomenal communication guides human likes and dislikes at an instinctive level.

In fact, the helplessness of the newborn creates the very condition that makes language necessary. If, like other mammals, newborn humans could stand, walk, and feed themselves within hours of birth, language would be impossible and in fact, unnecessary. Human language is an essential manifestation of the parent-child co-dependency bond. Mothers (and fathers!) are biologically compelled to care for newborns, who in turn are compelled by their physical needs to try by any means possible to communicate those needs to their careers. Each fulfils the needs of the other and a framework of communication is created as a result. Human language is a product of this biologically unique symbiotic relationship.

Even when alone, we act out of our social conditioning. This capacity to connect socially and learn as a result is our most powerful survival skill in our early years. Interestingly, the ‘window’ for language development is quite narrow, in chronological terms. In some unusual historical cases, children deprived of any human contact during their formative years can never really master spoken language, even when intensively tutored. Our brains are most receptive to the development of human language when driven by our physical and emotional needs at birth and for the years that immediately follow. It is the richness of the family social interaction and the associated languages that stimulate the child to extend their senses to experience the world, both directly, but importantly, through others.

We are the ‘others’ through which our children grow and learn. We carry a heavy burden of responsibility to ensure that the lived social and cultural environment of our children is full of sights and sounds, words and symbols, puzzles and wonder, rich with meaning and knowledge, all of which serve to help them become their adult selves.



Dr. Malcolm Pritchard

Head of School



Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). The Genesis of Higher Mental Functions. In R. Reiber (Ed.), The History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions (Vol. 4, pp. 97-120). New York: Plenum.



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