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Thread: Is language a precursor to consciousness?

  1. #1 Is language a precursor to consciousness? 
    墨子 DaBOB's Avatar
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    First of all, the word language may be too limiting for my question. Communication may be more appropriate. You decide.

    Can a person understand themselves as existing, or being, without being able to think within the structure of language? If I were to take this babbling wall of words out of my mind would I be aware of myself? Would I be able to, or need to, communicate to myself that I am here?

    It seems even memory is very closely tied to language. Yet, I can recall images, sounds, and smells, some of which I have no words for. Is it just that I, personally, seem tied to this reality by language? I have met some people who seem to realize themselves through other means, yet, they all still have language.

    Does a person develop language independent of being exposed to it, or having to use it?


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    Some animals that do not have language have been demonstrated to have self awareness (they pass the mirror test). These include all great apes (OK, some argue that all the great apes have rudimentary language capability), dolphins, elephants and European magpies.

    Many animals that do not have language are considered conscious. http://fcmconference.org/img/Cambrid...sciousness.pdf

    Consciousness is much more basic than the ability to contemplate the meaning of your existence, which, to be honest, some people don't seem to be capable of doing.


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    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    It seems even memory is very closely tied to language. Yet, I can recall images, sounds, and smells, some of which I have no words for.
    The evidence seems to be that memory is much more closely tied to basic emotions and senses such as smell. A smell can evoke strong emotions of a past experience, even if you can't remember exactly what it was or put it into words. (Although Proust didn't seem to have too much problem with the latter).

    Is it just that I, personally, seem tied to this reality by language?
    It does seem to vary. It seems that some people experience everything as words so, for example, as they walk down the street they have a continuous inner dialogue: "ooh look at those cake ... what is she wearing ... I wonder what to have for lunch ... my boss is an idiot ..."

    Others don't so much. I don't even hear a voice when I read.

    Does a person develop language independent of being exposed to it, or having to use it?
    From the limited evidence we have, people who grow up without being exposed to language as children do not develop language (and seem permanently impaired in their ability to learn a language). As far as I know, there is no evidence this affects their intelligence or awareness in other ways.
    ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat
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    I theorised once before that the brain is a sort of vacant real estate waiting for something that suits its fundamental operations - ie it is a transducer of stimuli and what it transduces depends on what it is exposed to. There thankfully haven't been many studies of children deprived of human contact or language development opportunities and the ones that exist are unsatisfactory (Genie for example; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genie_(feral_child)).

    My personal opinion is that the evolution of thought and possibly language is to be self-aware but we also have to remember that other species do not have the same physiological set-up that we do for language. Very few animals have the fine motor movements around the mouth that would allow them to articulate words. But if we are talking about communication instead of language specifically, we already know that dolphins have a highly sophisticated communication system - identifying each other by individual "names" effectively (with sound not words though).

    I often wonder if dolphins/whales etc communicate about us and wonder whether we will EVER get to learn sonar........
    "And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh" Nietzsche.
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    I want to change that but I cant edit...... Anyway - I didn't theorise once before, I suggested once before that an infants brain......etc.. And I don't mean vacant as in blank slate, just largely unused..... (Sorry working and posting too.....doesn't work well :-) )
    "And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh" Nietzsche.
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    Without the language a man would be degraded to the level of an animal. A person cannot understand themselves as existing, or being, without being able to think within the structure of language. It is complex language and its understanding the that has made humans the dominant species on earth.

    As for your other question, one cannot learn a language unless exposed to it. That is the reason because of which children born in America speak English and not Chinese, as they grow up.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patrick Jane View Post
    Without the language a man would be degraded to the level of an animal. A person cannot understand themselves as existing, or being, without being able to think within the structure of language.
    How do you know that?
    ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patrick Jane View Post
    Without the language a man would be degraded to the level of an animal. A person cannot understand themselves as existing, or being, without being able to think within the structure of language. It is complex language and its understanding the that has made humans the dominant species on earth.

    As for your other question, one cannot learn a language unless exposed to it. That is the reason because of which children born in America speak English and not Chinese, as they grow up.
    Is language a requisite for mathematical skills/spatial reasoning? I seldom have a voice in my head when reading/designing/drawing/shooting. Yet, I can still perform the actions sufficiently.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patrick Jane View Post
    Without the language a man would be degraded to the level of an animal.
    We ARE animals, in every way.
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  11. #10  
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    language is a crutch that eventually cripples the mind which ends up depending on language for formulation of abstractions which are limited by the language.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patrick Jane View Post
    As for your other question, one cannot learn a language unless exposed to it. That is the reason because of which children born in America speak English and not Chinese, as they grow up.
    是吗?
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    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    是吗?
    你說呢?你可要知道一般的人不一定擁有學習新語言的興趣呀。
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patrick Jane View Post
    Without the language a man would be degraded to the level of an animal. A person cannot understand themselves as existing, or being, without being able to think within the structure of language. .
    We are animals - but the definition of animal in use here is biological and not religious.

    Because for centuries we have used other species behaviour as insults (you eat like a pig, you're a bitch etc) and because of the "Great chain of being" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_chain_of_being) we have long considered man to be the epitome of creation, about as god-like as you can get without actually being god. (I say man because they meant men - apparently women and children are subordinate to men in this little phantasy....).

    However, because we are a little more knowledgeable now, we know there is no such thing as degraded to animals. Humans are not special beings that have more right to be here than anything else-what a conceit that is. We are, Patrick, animals - made of exactly the same stuff as other species, just put together in a different way. Let me help you with an example - if I give you dough you can make one loaf of bread, lots of little rolls and all different shapes and sizes but they are all made of dough and none of them are any better than the others.

    So having established we are all animals - we don't need to understand ourselves as existing in order to exist. We are, whether we know it or not (that's why you don't die in your sleep every night.......). For every species that has been world dominant in the history of earth there has always been a cause for it (or a number of causes) - the time was right for that particular species to be on top. Language is probably one of the reasons it became our time to be dominant but that doesn't confer any special status upon it and when its time for us to go it wont save us either.

    And just an observation you cant learn anything until you are exposed to it because until you are exposed to it you cannot know it exists.......
    "And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh" Nietzsche.
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  15. #14  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    It seems even memory is very closely tied to language. Yet, I can recall images, sounds, and smells, some of which I have no words for.
    The evidence seems to be that memory is much more closely tied to basic emotions and senses such as smell. A smell can evoke strong emotions of a past experience, even if you can't remember exactly what it was or put it into words. (Although Proust didn't seem to have too much problem with the latter).
    If language were necessary for memory, then operant conditioning in non-human animals wouldn’t work.

    Quote Originally Posted by Patrick Jane View Post
    As for your other question, one cannot learn a language unless exposed to it. That is the reason because of which children born in America speak English and not Chinese, as they grow up.
    But we have structures in our brains which allow us to recognize and use grammar, syntax, vocabulary, etc., so that a healthy newborn child has the potential to learn either English or Chinese; wherever they live they will pick up the language they hear. We know this because of how language gets messed up when people suffer damage to different parts of the brain. The question is how the human brain’s capacity to create and understand language evolved. Other great apes possibly have rudimentary forms of this, as even though they don’t have the proper vocal apparatus for speech, they seem to be able to communicate a little bit via sign language or pictogram, although this is disputed.

    Quote Originally Posted by shlunka View Post
    []Is language a requisite for mathematical skills/spatial reasoning? I seldom have a voice in my head when reading/designing/drawing/shooting. Yet, I can still perform the actions sufficiently.
    Google Temple Grandin. Also, what about people who are deaf from birth?

    Quote Originally Posted by PhDemon View Post
    Language evolved to tell the other monkeys where the food is.
    I think now you may be getting into the definition of language. There are many ways to communicate that do not involve making sounds called words with your mouth and putting them in order. Wolves use gestures to communicate to others in their pack so they can organise themselves to hunt for food effectively. Monkeys and people also use gestures. Bees communicate where food is through dance. If you are going to define language as "any system that allows members of a social group to communicate", then you're getting into circular reasoning territory. If you can't communicate, then you can't be part of a social group. Some form of communication, whether it involves sending text messages or pissing on a tree branch, is a prerequisite for living in a social group.
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    I dont understand the question. What do you mean by consciousness?

    A dog appears conscious to me, except when it is sleeping, sometimes the dog appears to be in REM sleep, and maybe imagines hes running in a field. To me the dog acts as if it is aware it exists even if hes not saying ~to be or not to be~ nor ~I think therefore I am~.

    The dog does not need to formulate a sentence with language "Oh my a big bolder is rolling my way, I better step aside to avoid a collision" to be aware of the situation and act accordingly. It is indeed limited in its formulation of some ideas such as abstract notions or realities that could be never perceived but explained/related by another individual with language) by the absence of complex language, but it is still conscious at a basic level.

    I think consciousness (a form of it since its a simple label) is a precursor to language, not the other way around. Imo Perception (complex modeling of objects with you as part of the representation of the imagined environment) is a precursor to consciousness.
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    Quote Originally Posted by icewendigo View Post
    I think consciousness (a form of it since its a simple label) is a precursor to language, not the other way around.
    And, I suspect, not just consciousness, but a theory of mind; i.e. understanding that other poeple are conscious in the same way. This leads on to an idea that speech developed as an extended way of directing other's attention.

    With just a grunt and a gesture, you can warn someone else of the dangerous animal or the choice fruit. But if you want to make more complicated associated between objects, time, space and abstract ideas you need language. This presumably builds on things like our pattern recognition abilities, memory, etc. The brain's functions (and our physiology) then presumably further evolved as language developed.
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    Quote Originally Posted by scoobydoo1 View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    是吗?
    你說呢?你可要知道一般的人不一定擁有學習新語言的興趣呀。
    当然。你是怎么学的?有什么母舌?

    其实我觉得美国人有这个问题。在欧洲大部分的都会说一些语言。在亚洲一样吧。 大部分美国人以為你在美国就要说英语,但是美国人也不说英语,而是他们说各种各样的美语。; )
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    I think Sculptor is on to something, which some others have expressed in more words. It's interesting looking at classical chinese literature, and at the commentaries that accompany so many of them. There is a trend early on to explain the old texts in commentaries which replace every word with two words (and chinese is generally monosyllabic).

    I think it's a pretty obvious trend that languages develop more words, and combinations of sounds, like we're trying to fine tune things. But, have we lost the consciousness we once had? Does an adult know how to speak the language of an infant? Maybe this could be said of any creative endeavour, that none are complete in their expression. Do we, as a single entity get better or worse at our attempts?
    Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only realize the truth. There is no spoon. Then you'll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself. -Spoon Boy
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    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    你是怎么学的?
    我可是個新加坡華僑,所以從小就學了中文。

    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    有什么母舌?
    我的母語可說是廣州話,可是英語比較強。

    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    其实我觉得美国人有这个问题。
    那可能是因為他們的社會人與人之間的溝通不需要用太多種語言。西方社會裡以美國來說,英語可說是大部分人民 的母語,就像新加坡一樣。這是文化和教育的結果。

    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    大部分美国人以為你在美国就要说英语,但是美国人也不说英语,而是他们说各种各样的美语。; )
    其實在新加坡這也不例外。


    * My apologies to fellow readers for speaking in a non-English language on the forums. The conversation between DaBOB and myself is merely a "getting to know you" chat.
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    You're high-jacking my thread! : )
    Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only realize the truth. There is no spoon. Then you'll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself. -Spoon Boy
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    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    YouWe're high-jacking my thread! : )
    Fixed it for you
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    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    There is a trend early on to explain the old texts in commentaries which replace every word with two words (and chinese is generally monosyllabic).
    Modern Chinese is generally polysyllabic. The great majority of words have two syllables (can't remember the proportion; about 90%? I can look it up). Most morphemes are monosyllabic, though. (But that might be true of English as well.)
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    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    You're high-jacking my thread! : )
    I figured I was being somewhat tested when you replied in Mandarin.

    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    First of all, the word language may be too limiting for my question. Communication may be more appropriate. You decide.
    I would recommend sticking with language instead of communication, because an inner monologue or a realization of our existence does not require it to be conveyed to another.

    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    Can a person understand themselves as existing, or being, without being able to think within the structure of language?
    Although I have no firsthand experience with one, I speculate that a deaf and blind person would be able to visualize their environment through tactile and olfactory senses. And since someone like that would require a caretaker to adequately function in a society, they would have to develop a unique way of communicating with the rest of the world through what I suspect as a uniquely developed language. Whether or not that language is as robust as anything you or I are familiar with, I can't say for certain.

    Having said that, I've once mentioned in another thread that to understand means to recognize significance. When you say "understand themselves as existing, or being", did you perhaps meant some form of self-contemplation with an inner monologue, and not simply a realization of self-awareness?

    Quote Originally Posted by DaBOB View Post
    Does a person develop language independent of being exposed to it, or having to use it?
    If this person is interacting with the rest of the world, or at the very least with/through a caretaker, I suspect they would have to develop a language to communicate another individual. Not necessarily a language they may have an inner monologue with.

    As for your thread question of "Is language a precursor to consciousness?" That sounds more like a philosophical question. There are insects and animals that have their own language for communicating with their own kind, but do they possess consciousness? Perhaps not; not the form of consciousness that we are familiar with anyway.
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    Thanks for the fix. Old Chinese, the language spoken when the written language began developing seems to be highly monosyllabic. I was talking about that, specifically the text.

    No test. I don't communicate much in general, and I'm currently not in a very Chinese appropriate environment, so I enjoy the opportunity to use it.

    Sometimes I feel like there is more than one speaker in my head, and they are communicating. So maybe another question is needed. Did language develop for the sake of communication? Maybe communication is just a means of language practice.

    Teaching the blind to navigate...

    I suppose it borderlines on philosophical. I think that depends on whether or not we expect to arrive at a satisfying answer, which I rarely expect.

    Whether we are talking about language or communication the terms would have to be strictly defined to get much further. For example, I'm not sure insects are capable of using words, even if they are communicating, but then we would have to define word as well.

    I suspect this has something to do with why thescienceforum does not have a linguistics subforum. It's all very fuzzy.
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    Hmm, in a related, but not necessarily relevant question:

    Would a group of human infants, without any exposure to language, develop their own language as they grew - assuming that they somehow managed to fend for themselves? I imagine the answer to that would answer the topic of the thread.

    I think language is something that probably develops from the ability to apply our intellect to communication. When Feral Children are discovered they lack the knowledge of language -- as in language the way we know it -- and sometimes are incapable of learning language. But is the issue not having knowledge that language is a thing, and the lack of introduction to language at an early age - or is it the lack of exposure to, and adoption by, an animal community that is equally as capable to develop a complex language?

    See, I think humans are intelligent enough to develop some type of language that is fairly complex without being exposed to any other human language. Even if they couldn't, I think that they would be self-aware - it would just be expressed differently, perhaps it would be through visual representations.
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    In my youth, I'd dabbled in sculpturing with various materials and casting techniques. In my spare time, I had spend some time wondering how my pieces would appear to those who may be visually impaired, and that had led me to develop different approaches in my work. Aspects such as color and drawings on such works soon disappeared and were replaced with more emphasis on shape, texture, grains, tactile composition, scale/size, etc. and details became my key focus.

    This perspective had led me to realize that the visually and auditorily impaired would visualize their environment and objects in that environment primary through their tactile sense. I tend to think of it as visualizing a 3D model of objects or the room (environment) by the touch.

    You can perhaps somewhat experience this by performing an experiment; by blindfolding yourself (or simply closing your eyes) and have someone hand you an object whereby you attempt to map/scan/see it in your mind simply through forming it's shape and texture via touch alone. The sensation of this feels a little like generating a 3D model on a darkened computer screen by caressing the object, but it is more real than simply being a mental image. Your hands are literally holding on to something tangible as opposed to merely imagining it in your mind. When your fingers runs along an edge of a table it will feel the sharpness of the 90 angle, the texture of it's surface, the toughness of the material it is composed from, it's weight, surface temperature, etc.

    All these are inputs are received without sight, and possibly not registered in the mind in words of a spoken/read language, but in a form of tactile vocabulary. Meaning and significance can be conceptually attached to objects visualized in the mind via tactile senses, and a uniquely developed language may be personally formed for inner monologue.
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    Quote Originally Posted by stander-j View Post
    Would a group of human infants, without any exposure to language, develop their own language as they grew - assuming that they somehow managed to fend for themselves? I imagine the answer to that would answer the topic of the thread.
    The trouble is, those pesky ethical panels will never approve the funding...

    It is possible, maybe even likely, that the group would develop a crude form of communication (rather like a pidgin) which turns into a full language in one or two generations. But, barring some bizarre plane/ship accident, we will probably never know.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange View Post

    The trouble is, those pesky ethical panels will never approve the funding...


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    Could the inability of some feral children to learn language come from brain damage caused by exposure (hypothermia - human babies don't have fur to keep them warm), malnutrition (different animals have different nutritional requirements), etc. In early life? Probably most children would not survive at all without human caretakers. Too many variables.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Alec Bing View Post
    Could the inability of some feral children to learn language come from brain damage caused by exposure (hypothermia - human babies don't have fur to keep them warm), malnutrition (different animals have different nutritional requirements), etc. In early life? Probably most children would not survive at all without human caretakers. Too many variables.
    I'm sure someone will be ever to give you a much better answer than I can, but from what I remember about things like that is this: There are periods of development where certain things are most easily learned. Language, I believe, is best developed somewhere around being a toddler to a young child. If a child does not learn language within this period of development it will significantly increase the difficulty in acquiring a language/to speak a language fluently. I think that is what seems to be the major issue, instead of brain damage from malnutrition and exposure. I think a lot of the feral children we know about are not separated from society at infancy, but at an older age: 3-5 years old - and often were children that were neglected in the first place.

    Edit reason: Something I had said did not come out the way it was intended and implied something that is wrong: "significantly reduce the probability to ever learn a language" vs. "significantly increase the difficulty in acquiring a language"
    Last edited by stander-j; June 3rd, 2013 at 03:39 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by stander-j View Post

    I'm sure someone will be ever to give you a much better answer than I can, but from what I remember about things like that is this: There are periods of development where certain things are most easily learned. Language, I believe, is best developed somewhere around being a toddler to a young child. If a child does not learn language within this period of development it will significantly increase the difficulty in acquiring a language/to speak a language fluently. I think that is what seems to be the major issue, instead of brain damage from malnutrition and exposure. I think a lot of the feral children we know about are not separated from society at infancy, but at an older age: 3-5 years old - and often were children that were neglected in the first place.

    Edit reason: Something I had said did not come out the way it was intended and implied something that is wrong: "significantly reduce the probability to ever learn a language" vs. "significantly increase the difficulty in acquiring a language"
    Thanks. I don't know much about feral children. By 3 years old, wouldn't most children have acquired language already? Would they have forgotten what they had already learned?

    Helen Keller's story comes to mind. She was exposed to language as a baby before she lost her hearing and sight, then had to relearn language as sign language.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Alec Bing View Post
    Thanks. I don't know much about feral children. By 3 years old, wouldn't most children have acquired language already? Would they have forgotten what they had already learned?

    Helen Keller's story comes to mind. She was exposed to language as a baby before she lost her hearing and sight, then had to relearn language as sign language.
    This is the reason we cannot learn much from feral children about language development because you need to know how much exposure to language they have had. When newborns/infants are around people they first pick up on the rhythm of languages and learn where the word breaks are through the sounds of words e.g. English words are mostly stressed at the beginning of the word and tend to tail off at the end. Then the adults around them (in the Western world at least) start to teach them the basics by using repetitive vowels and overly exaggerated "singing" of words.....da-da-da-da, ma-ma-ma-, doggeeeeeee etc etc. This is why children born deaf are a bit slower to acquire language skills because they miss out on the basics but also can acquire language at an astonishing rate once they can hear. Provided their hearing is restored within the critical period of language development (which is considered to be about 3 - 4 years old I believe) after that age things become a different thing as in the example of Genie I gave earlier.

    So feral children might have had some exposure to language or none so what we observe once these children become known is not very helpful. As I said before, I believe that the brain's fundamental process as a transducer of information means that it will decode whatever information you throw at it and some more successfully than others. It is known that there are areas such as Broca's and Wernicke's that when damaged speech and language functions are impaired, however it is highly unlikely that in the absence of a language in infancy those areas are left unused so it might be possible that some other function makes use of the free real estate. (This is just conjecture on my part but it seems feasible to me). Then if language comes along at a later stage (after the critical period) there is no room at the inn (so to speak). But since no-one has been able to properly test it out its all conjecture really.
    "And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh" Nietzsche.
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