Language has traditionally been deemed a distinctive endowment of humans, embodying the human essence; and a source of creativity for humans to think and act in discernibly different ways from other organisms. For centuries, this uniqueness of human language has been an intriguing mystery for philosophers and scientists. As observed by Charles Darwin, “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak as we see in the babble of our young children while no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew or write.” Along with this myth arise a wide spectrum of appealing questions pertinent to the nature, psychology and biological basis of language and language acquisition. Specifically, what is it that makes language typically ‘human’, and what are the properties of human language? Do animals have language? Are there people without languages? Is sign language a universal language? How many languages are out there, and in addition to diversity, can languages be similar in some way? How can children acquire their first language(s) rapidly and effortlessly without sustained imitation, memorization or formal teaching, whereas for adults, learning a new language becomes such a daunting and laborious task? What does this tell about language and human mind? Drawing on scientific evidence in linguistics and particularly psycholinguistics, this talk aims to delve into these issues, as an attempt to unveil and appreciate the mysterious yet miraculous facets of human language.
Cathy Ping PAN is Lecturer in the Division of Humanities, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She received her PhD degree in applied English linguistics from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and continued there as Postdoctoral Fellow before joining HKUST. Her areas of interest include intercultural pragmatics, linguistic politeness, language and intercultural communication, and second language writing.