How humans evolved language

Read an academic text about how humans evolved language to practise and improve your reading skills.

Do the preparation task first. Then read the text and do the exercises.

Reading text


Thanks to the field of linguistics we know much about the development of the 5,000 plus languages in existence today. We can describe their grammar and pronunciation and see how their spoken and written forms have changed over time. For example, we understand the origins of the Indo-European group of languages, which includes Norwegian, Hindi and English, and can trace them back to tribes in eastern Europe in about 3000 BC.

So, we have mapped out a great deal of the history of language, but there are still areas we know little about. Experts are beginning to look to the field of evolutionary biology to find out how the human species developed to be able to use language. So far, there are far more questions and half-theories than answers.


We know that human language is far more complex than that of even our nearest and most intelligent relatives like chimpanzees. We can express complex thoughts, convey subtle emotions and communicate about abstract concepts such as past and future. And we do this following a set of structural rules, known as grammar. Do only humans use an innate system of rules to govern the order of words? Perhaps not, as some research may suggest dolphins share this capability because they are able to recognise when these rules are broken.


If we want to know where our capability for complex language came from, we need to look at how our brains are different from other animals. This relates to more than just brain size; it is important what other things our brains can do and when and why they evolved that way. And for this there are very few physical clues; artefacts left by our ancestors don't tell us what speech they were capable of making. One thing we can see in the remains of early humans, however, is the development of the mouth, throat and tongue. By about 100,000 years ago, humans had evolved the ability to create complex sounds. Before that, evolutionary biologists can only guess whether or not early humans communicated using more basic sounds.


Another question is, what is it about human brains that allowed language to evolve in a way that it did not in other primates? At some point, our brains became able to make our mouths produce vowel and consonant sounds, and we developed the capacity to invent words to name things around us. These were the basic ingredients for complex language. The next change would have been to put those words into sentences, similar to the 'protolanguage' children use when they first learn to speak. No one knows if the next step – adding grammar to signal past, present and future, for example, or plurals and relative clauses – required a further development in the human brain or was simply a response to our increasingly civilised way of living together.

Between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, though, we start to see the evidence of early human civilisation, through cave paintings for example; no one knows the connection between this and language. Brains didn't suddenly get bigger, yet humans did become more complex and more intelligent. Was it using language that caused their brains to develop? Or did their more complex brains start producing language?


More questions lie in looking at the influence of genetics on brain and language development. Are there genes that mutated and gave us language ability? Researchers have found a gene mutation that occurred between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, which seems to have a connection with speaking and how our brains control our mouths and face. Monkeys have a similar gene, but it did not undergo this mutation. It's too early to say how much influence genes have on language, but one day the answers might be found in our DNA.

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Worksheet80.59 KB

Do you think monkeys and dolphins have as complex language as humans do?

we are not compared to monkeys and dolphins' complexity with humans because human brains are different from theirs, both animals are intelligent and creative think like a human but not in the proper way.

Do you think monkeys and dolphins have complex language like humans do?

It's possible, not in the same way as humans but I think they might have an organized linguistic structure in order to communicate with their mates.

I think apart from human other animals talk it's own way. Dolphin regards cleaver animal in the world. Monkeys have own language to talk each other. Human have talk about past future and present. Animal have a wide language.

Honestly, I don't have a clue because I'm an engineer, not a linguist but I think we are not the only ones who can communicate using, let's call it, words. I think apes and dolphins can do that too. They are quite smart for that. Maybe they just need a little time to evolve to our level. Well, you know, "a little time" according to evolution sometimes means millions of years but they are on their ways now. By the way, the ability to speak isn't the most wonderful kind for a living being. I know (I like watching different programs about nature) that other animals have their own ways to communicate - dances, smells, sounds, or movements. It's amazing to discover hove many ways of development has the evolution. My favorite examples about communications are the bees with their dance speech and the ants with their very complicated and structured method to share information. And trees! Some time ago I read "National Geographic" magazine (or it was "Around the World", no matter) about the newest researches about tree's communications. I was surprised to know that they "talk" to each other too.

It is true that other species like dolphines,whales,apes seem to be on their way to developing their own language.The remark I wanna make is with regard to the reference you made to plants.I think it's important to differentiate between "chemical/biological" signals and "linguistic" signals.Both serve the same purpose,which is the interactions between creatures,but the latter is massively more complex in its structure and nature.So I think you would oversimplify if you tried to equalize these two.

I don't know, science doesn't understand life, in general neither does human development. Science tries to name and analyze but there is a lack of knowledge. I think that animals have consciousness but science does not know anything about it.
The text said something about the way dolphins communicate, dolphins have a structure and rules in their communication so is kind of complex. with the monkeys is different they can't communicate at the same level but they use hand signs to express themselves.
In my opinion monkeys and dolphins have a very unique language system among themselves. Even if they can't produce words and sentences like humans do, monkeys and dolphins produce some special sounds that no one but they understand. I believe they have a very complex language like humans have, and I look forward to be able to understand their communication system and language one day in the future.
Both dolphins and chimpanzees are different types of communicators. Dolphins gives distinct names to the member of their families and they create sounds. However, chimpanzees clearly don't have a spoken language. They emit sounds and tend to use sign language . Thus, i believe dolphins have a complex language however we can't be sure about chimpanzees.
Maybe learning language is something like gettting a passport to a certain community....? ;)
I think monkeys and dolphins have a complex language system, but they communicate in a way that we humans do. It is clear that they have the intelligence level closest to the human species and therefore are similar in terms of language development and processes. In addition, we see that the animals studied with the experiments carried out perform many tasks.
I believe dolphins and monkeys do comunicate in their very specific languages, even though they aren't as complex as human language. As I know from studies I've read, chimpanzees and dolphins can exchange simple tasks information, such as where to obtain food and if there is any danger nearby. However, they cannot express feelings or abstract concepts by using words and language structures. Instead, they comunicate their emotions by body expressions, gestures and general behaviour.
Despite that monkeys and dolphins don't have complex language like humans do, they communicate and collaborate with each other in some situations. ;)
I think our species is far more advanced than the other ones in terms of linguistic. We have thousands of other languages and each of them has its own rules and phonetics, therefore, dolphins and monkeys may be intelligent but their communication is not as advanced as ours.
I have never really thought about the complexity of dolphins or monkeys' language. However, I do think they must have a way to communicate, not as complex as ours but there nonetheless. What makes the difference between human and other species in terms of communication is that we have complex grammar, semantics, syntax and much more. That is why we cannot compare our way of communicating with the one other species have.
Do you think monkeys and dolphins have complex language like humans do? yes i do because they are using a language to communicate so it is obviously they have complex language as i read in the text the dolphins can notice if one of them make abnormal sound
Could totally be for me. It is clear that there are significant evidences between these mammals and human beings. Nevertheless, both of these has found the way to communicate between their species, and that seems to me extremely unique.
hello I don't know why task 2 Q4 is true, I think it is not mentioned in the article. Can you give me some more detailed explanation or evidence?

Hello Burgess,

The question is as follows:

4. The language of very young children has something in common with the way our prehistoric ancestors may have spoken.



The information showing that this is true is in section D:

The next change would have been to put those words into sentences, similar to the 'protolanguage' children use when they first learn to speak.


I hope that clarifies it for you.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, could you please elaborate Task 2 Question 2? Why “The grammar of dolphin language follows the same rules as human language.”is False? The context says “...,known as grammar. Do only human use...? Perhaps not, as some research may suggest dolphins share this capability....”

Hello wahaha

The text says that research shows that dolphins may also have the ability to use a grammar of sorts, but it doesn't say that dolphin language follows the same rules as human language. For one thing, it's not clear exactly whether dolphins have a grammar, and then it clearly suggests that even if they do, it's not as complex as human grammar.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

It seems to me that if we regard the complexity of our own language as the unit to measure other ways of communication, it would turn out that they aren't necessarily complex as we thought, or at the very least not enough to resemble ours. However, if we address it in a different approach to assess this capability in a framework of evolution, ways to express things we would be able to look beyond. The behaviour of a community is depicted by its communication and therefore the way they coexist with the others members. That's the reason why our capacity to communicate and convey information emerged from our urge to express something, mostly because we adapted to the world around us. After all that's why we are here.
There isn't any other species apart from human beings that are able to produce languages endowed with a complex grammar, syntax, semantics, phonology, etc. Studies made training chimpanzees to learn sign language have demonstrated that they can formulate simple sentences but they never learn further. Dolphins can have a grammar system as the text suggest, but it's limited.
Should the first sentence in section D not be phrased and punctuated differently? Such as: Another question is, what it is about human brains that allowed language to evolve in a way that it did not in other primates?

Hello joachimkoerner

I'm sorry for the delay in our response; I was checking with our proofreader. She explained that the comma is not necessary, but that it is often used to make a sentence such as this one a bit easier to read. So we have inserted a comma in the place you suggested, but otherwise the sentence remains the same.

Thanks for asking us about this.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

I still think human language and our brain is far more complex than Dolphins and monkeys. They might can catch some human expression, but they can not fully understand the meanings and the structures. However, we don’t know how evolution goes, all the species are evolving slowly, maybe one day there be other species just like human as the stories from science fiction films.
Hello, I have a question relates to task 2 and question number 1. "Experts fully understand how the Hindi language developed", where in this text have we this word fully? Can we fully understand how the Hindi language developed? Because in text we have this: "we know much about the delevopment of the 5,000 plus languages.... we can describe their grammar and pronounciation .... we understand the origins of the Indo-European gropu of languages - but does this sentence mean fully understand?

Hello Laurrette

For the purposes of this exercise, yes, it means 'fully understand'. Although I think your point is a valid one, the idea is that the development of Hindi is understood well enough to say that we fully understand it.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Many studies on animals show that many species has their own languages,like bees and aunts.But how complex these languages are? I think it needs more contemplation before answering this question, since we don't know much about these languages.
No, i don't think dolphin and monkey have complex language like humans do. Because i know in order to have a complex language, one must have records or documentation on it. One would also have to have a very good memory span to remember this language’s words and grammar rules. But dolphin and monkey haven't to be intelligent enough to learn them.
I don't think they have complex language like humans because language is one of the most remarkable characteristics that separates humans from other animals. Although monkeys and dolphins also communicate by using a variety of signs such as sounds or movements but their languages are not as complex or expressive as human language.
It's great because people have their own language and can use language to describe and express. Of course, animals also have their own language. we can study the language of animals but animals cannot study human language.
In my opinion, every creature has a different structure language. But, yes i think that our structure languages are complex more than dolphins and monkeys.
I think monkey and dolphin may not have complex language like human , I also think they have their own language to communicate with others,it can understand what people talk .But humans can express ideas, opinions, feelings, or describe imaginary situations, dolphins or monkeys are not .
Today there are many theories about "how, why, when, where" language may have appeared.Although dolphins and monkeys are animals that are able to communicate well with their fellow humans. They can even communicate quite successfully with people. This does not mean that their language is as complex as humans, but it is just one of the comparative bases to study human language. In short, human language is the best and any animal language cannot reach it.
Each sound that represents an individual's for other objects in the same species and people is not outside of this category. But unlike other animals, humans are superior because our brains are much more developed and so we have a better understanding of the world around us. Human language is very complex and it is not like any other animals.
well, I think monkey and dolphin may have complex language like human do, I also think they have their own language to communicate with others, which we still haven't discovered yet. Maybe in the future, we can find out more interesting things about the animal's language. That's my two cents.
i really like the question Was it using language that caused their brains to develop? Or did their more complex brains start producing language? in my opinion, i think our brains are more complex make language develop. we just compare with our ancestors who lived in cave. at that time, they couldn't create many good thing and their language was simple . now we seem to be more intelligent, our brains are more complex and our language has change a lot. we makes new terms to adapt with our new creation.
I think humans have a more abstract language system, because they can refer to present, past and future actions. Further, humans can express ideas, opinions, feelings, or describe imaginary situations. And last but not least, humans can use language to talk about language; I am almost sure that dolphins or monkeys are not able to do this!