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National Science Foundation
Speech Is Physical
Exploring The Interface
Language Learning
Language Change
Paths of Change
Endangered Language
Sign Language
Classroom Resources


Language is common to all humans; we seem to be “hard-wired” for it. Many social scientists and philosophers say it’s this ability to use language symbolically that makes us “human.”

Though it may be a universal human attribute, language is hardly simple. For decades, linguists’ main task was to track and record languages. But, like so many areas of science, the field of linguistics has evolved dramatically over the past 50 years or so.

Collage of hands and lips. Click for larger image.
Languages come in many shapes and sounds. Language is simultaneously a physical process and a way of sharing meaning among people.

Credit: Design by Alex Jeon, National Science Foundation

Today’s science of linguistics explores:

  • the sounds of speech and how different sounds function in a language
  • the psychological processes involved in the use of language
  • how children acquire language capabilities
  • social and cultural factors in language use, variation and change
  • the acoustics of speech and the physiological and psychological aspects involved in producing and understanding it
  • the biological basis of language in the brain

This special report touches on nearly all of these areas by answering questions such as: How does language develop and change? Can the language apparatus be "seen" in the brain? Does it matter if a language disappears? What exactly is a dialect? How can sign language help us to understand languages in general?

Answers to these and other questions have implications for neuroscience, psychology, sociology, biology and more.

Language and Linguistics A Special Report