How humans evolved language

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.

Task 1

Task 2


Worksheet80.59 KB

Language level

Average: 4.1 (50 votes)
Do you need to improve your English reading skills?
Join thousands of learners from around the world who are improving their English reading skills with our online courses.

Submitted by angeliil20 on Tue, 24/05/2022 - 15:15


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.

Submitted by Suraj paliwal on Wed, 27/10/2021 - 05:59


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.

Profile picture for user Hennadii

Submitted by Hennadii on Fri, 09/07/2021 - 16:05

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.

Profile picture for user danisep

Submitted by danisep on Wed, 21/04/2021 - 06:00

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.

Submitted by SB4life on Tue, 30/03/2021 - 18:15

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.

Submitted by elsagi on Tue, 30/03/2021 - 17:13

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.