Last modified: 04/02/2021

About the NCCR Evolving Language The first National Centre of Competence in Research dedicated to language

exploring past present and future of language
Exploring the past, present and future of language

Why is it essential?

Language as a defining human characteristic

  • Language is central to our communication: even if much information can be exchanged through olfactory, tactile or visual modalities, this is still marginal compared to the quantity and accuracy of information communicated through language – achieved through speech, gestures or written symbols.
  • Language is central to our thinking: it helps us to structure our thoughts, to link up free associations and to draw conclusions. But language also shapes the way we understand and perceive the world, what we can expect from it and how we remember it.
  • And finally, language is central to our social life: the constant diversification of languages demarcates populations, ethnicities and cultural groups, by creating a sense of belonging and by allowing us to preserve our cultural knowledge.

Language is undergoing radical changes

  • Digital media and constant access to online information are changing the way we communicate. Instead of “I” and “You” amorphous sources and recipients are appearing. Examples include protest movements without personal interlocutors or AI systems, such as Siri and Alexa, that have become an integral part of everyday life, offering us tailor-made television entertainment and online shopping.
  • Advances in neurotechnology have been breathtaking, allowing increasingly direct interventions the way language is processed and planned. Electrocorticograms can already be used to reveal what a speaker intends to say, without actually speaking. One the one hand, this opens up long-awaited opportunities for neuroprostheses for speech disorders (e.g. after a stroke), but it also threatens our fundamental rights to mental confidentiality. Machine-lead mindreading is just around the corner, a situation that is highly dangerous and raises fundamental ethical questions.
  • Globalisation is changing the ongoing diversification of languages. Traditionally, diversification has been driven by changes in local natural resource availability and associated restrictions over group sizes, but these processes have been reversed by powerful global mechanisms that are rapidly destroying the diversity of the world’s 7000 languages. Local knowledge is lost, such as the sustainable use of local resources, and millions of people are deprived of their identities, often accompanied by fierce political conflicts.

Future steps with unknown consequences

These changes pose gigantic new challenges, comparable to the consequences of the great steps in our evolution, such as the invention of agriculture or the industrial revolution. But what does the current cultural evolution mean in concrete terms? What does it mean to turn away from the “I and you” in communication, from the privacy of inner language concepts, from natural diversification processes? Where are we developing towards? And in what direction do we want to develop?

In order to understand a species, our species, we need to understand our evolution, our phylogenetic history and our cultural development: Where does our ability to communicate between I and you come from, how does language develop, how is it imagined and processed in the brain and how do we pass it on from generation to generation with ongoing diversification? How do our primate relatives communicate, and how did we evolve language from a primate-like communication system?

Division of faculties has blocked the study of language

There have been few responses so far; and the few attempts that have been made are highly speculative and hardly verifiable. In fact, the evolution of language is still not understood – some authors even speak of “mystery” and of one of the greatest problems of modern science. This is mainly due to the fact that, until recently, research on language was almost exclusively a profession of the humanities, whereas research on evolution and the brain stemmed from the natural sciences. In fact, since the division of the two faculties more than 100 years ago, an ever-widening gap has grown between the world of “humanities and language sciences” and the world of “natural sciences and mathematics”, not only at universities but also already in primary schools. Human language has increasingly been studied as a purely intellectual and cultural phenomenon, almost always in the form of a single language or individual texts. This has left little scope for biological research in the field of communication and cognition of other species. Systematic comparison between humans and animals therefore appears to be the key to fuller, evolutionarily informed study of language.

A transdisciplinary approach opens up new perspectives

The NCCR Evolving Language breaks down these barriers. It is based on a radically transdisciplinary research programme on an unprecedented scale, united by an unreserved commitment to modern standards of scientific replicability, transparency and data science. It brings together 30 groups from a wide range of disciplines, spread throughout Switzerland: linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, biology, anthropology, medicine, genetics, computer science, geography, mathematics and philosophy.

With this condensed conceptual and methodological power the NCCR studies and compares the communication and cognition of humans and animals, especially our closest relatives, the great apes. Some of our research groups focus on the neural and computational processes involved in speech processing, as well as the opportunities and risks of applied neurotechnology. Our teams are also investigating how children learn their language in very different traditional cultures, from the Amazon to the Himalayas. Some projects explore diversification processes and variation in language, or the influence of machines on our communication and thinking. Finally, transversal task forces provide methodological, technological, philosophical-conceptual and ethical expertise.