The Origins and Future of Language

Language is what sets humans apart from all other species. Despite much effort, however, its evolutionary origins have remained obscure. At the same time, the role of language is currently undergoing radical changes, with cultural, psychological and evolutionary ramifications barely understood. New digital channels, ubiquitous online knowledge bases, and continued advancement of artificial intelli gence are reshaping our communicative environment and modifying the way we learn and use lan guage. An indepth exploration of the origins and future of language is urgently needed, propel ling language science to the forefront of societal and economic challenges. Our project explores the evolutionary origins and future development of linguistic communication with an unprecedented transdisciplinary research programme. We conceptualise language as a system of components with distinct evolutionary trajectories and adopt a large-scale comparative framework to study these trajecto ries in nature and function along three thematic axes: 1. The Dynamic Structures of Language: How and why have the structures of language and their temporal dynamics evolved? How will these structures interact with new technologies and means of communication? 2. The Biological Substrates of Language: What are the biological mechanisms that make language possible? Can and should we intervene on language functions with neurotechnology? 3. The Social Cognition of Language: What are the social cognitive mechanisms that underlie linguistic communication, both phylogenetically and ontogenetically? How did these mechanisms evolve and how will they change with artificial communicators? Our long-term vision is a fully-fledged phylogeny of language, tracing the evolution of the core components from earlier forms of communication and cognition. This phylogeny is expected to shed light on the drivers of linguistic and cognitive complexity and on the extent to which the digital age might create new niches in which human communication evolves. We posit that only a radically evolutionary perspective can lead to a sufficiently deep understanding of the current changes in human communication, to a capacity to predict how human communication might develop in the future, and to competence in taking ethically responsible decisions in relation to technological developments. We will tackle these questions by leveraging cutting-edge developments in language science, neuroscience, computer science, and evolutionary biology. In language science, the digital revolution makes it possible to model ontogeny and diachrony species-wide and cross-culturally, refocusing the question of language origins from static to dynamic traits. In neuroscience, we can describe and model language and speech processing with unprecedented biological plausibility, allowing intervention on language functions with sophisticated neuroengineering tools. In computer science, machine intelligence systems allow language analysis and processing with striking efficiency and accuracy. In evolutionary studies, comparative research with primates and other animals living in natural conditions has revolutionised current theories of animal cognition, with direct implications for the origins of language. Our proposal for a National Centre of Competence in Research brings together a large group of scientists in Switzerland with the shared goals of (1) understanding the evolution of language-ready brains and their neural mechanisms, the social conditions these mechanisms require, and the dynamic structures they produce; (2) designing new applications and neuroengineering techniques for language learning, assessment, recovery, translation, and disorder remediation; and (3) engaging the public in scientifically informed debates on the prospects, challenges, and ethics of digital communication and neurotechnological interventions. Language and its dynamic diversity is part of the national identity of multilingual Switzerland, making this project ideally suited to inspire and engage a large general public with cutting-edge research.
University of Zurich
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich, Idiap Research Institute, University of Basel, University of Fribourg, University of Geneva, University of Lausanne, Universite de Neuchatel, Zurich University of the Arts
Swiss National Science Foundation
Jun 01, 2020
May 31, 2024