People learn (or actually acquire) languages naturally. As we grow up, we learn also multiple other skills which we then use in everyday life.

A lot of these skills are often compared to a language, for example:

  • Mathematics
  • Reading
  • Playing musical instrument
  • Programming languages
  • Law
  • Playing chess (proven to rely on patterns)
  • Dancing
  • Painting or, more generally, producing works of art.

All of the above have been compared at one point to a language. They are used to communicate ideas, emotions and information.

The language is used for communication. In the same way, one person knowing the law/programming language/accounting wouldn't actually possess any useful skill without the presence of other lawyers/computers/tax system. So one can argue that all these skills are relevant and can be evaluated only in the presence of other people who receive the message expressed using them.

In the same way, if one person invents their own language but nobody else understands it, we wouldn't classify it as a language.

So, could it be that most of the skills we learn could be described as a language? What would be arguments against it? Is there any evidence I can look into with regards to similarities between learning different skills and learning languages?

  • $\begingroup$ I would consider reframing your questions in a more scientific manner (e.g. it kind of depends how you define a language). Also, you should include reading written words in your list, as this is something we haven't evolved to do, and there is tonnes of research into that. Also, I cannot see the relevance of some of the things you listed (e.g. law, dancing). Are you trying to ask, are the cognitive processes in langauge acquistion similar to the things in your list? $\endgroup$ – user3084100 Dec 5 '16 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ On one hand, I agree that it depends on how you define language, but picking one definition would narrow down the question and make it easier to answer and less interesting. I'd like to hear how it relates to different definitions of the language. I did add reading to the list - thanks for that. I have intentionally added skills that do not seem relevant, in order to hear what are the arguments against them being modeled as a language. $\endgroup$ – ThamP Dec 7 '16 at 6:44

It appears that the language and learning new skills would often (depending on the skill) be managed by different parts of the brain. It is, therefore, unlikely to be similar.

A good description of how the learning process works from neuroscience's point of view can be found here: http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s4/chapter07.html.

This same course also describes how the language is managed in the brain in this chapter: http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s4/chapter08.html.

Based on the above, it doesn't seem to be the case that the mentioned skills are similar to language, at least not in terms of how the brain processes them.


I would argue that as soon as you start to consider model-free learning, such as reinforecement learning (e.g. Pavlovian Conditioning) that the language idea breaks down. For example, I don't think that learning that a bell is often paired with food can be usefully thought of as learning a language without some serious contortion of the meaning of what a language is.

With this is mind, if you consider that language is a very high-order cognitive ability that relatively few animals poses, yet even sea snails can learn (just ask Eric Kandel), I would say that the majority of learning cannot usefully be considered learning a language.

However, from your question you seem to only be concerned with complex skill learning. At this point it's probably more useful to consider what criteria are required to define something as language (e.g. a grammar, syntax, symbolic conveying of information), and then see if the skills that you are interested fulfill those criteria.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Critt, welcome at CogSci. Do you have any references that could back up your statements? Here at CogSci we expect well researched questions and answers. $\endgroup$ – Robin Kramer Dec 8 '16 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ Scholarpedia article on reinforcement learning: scholarpedia.org/article/Reinforcement_learning $\endgroup$ – B. Critt Dec 9 '16 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ link to A Neural Substrate of Prediction and Reward by Schultz et al: www.gatsby.ucl.ac.uk/~dayan/papers/sdm97.pdf $\endgroup$ – B. Critt Dec 9 '16 at 15:28

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