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)
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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

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Submitted by Luobowawa520 on Thu, 22/08/2019 - 19:05

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.

Submitted by Laurrette on Thu, 22/08/2019 - 12:41

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

Submitted by om mariam on Sun, 18/08/2019 - 09:02

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.

Submitted by vuthimyduyen on Mon, 06/05/2019 - 17:08

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.
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Submitted by Haocbs on Mon, 06/05/2019 - 16:52

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.

Submitted by PHẠM NGỌC HÀ on Mon, 06/05/2019 - 15:31

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.

Submitted by Xiu Xiu on Sun, 05/05/2019 - 18:31

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 agree, in my opinion you're as right as u can be, as humans, after an extreme amount of evolution, we were expanding our language for a lot of time