Language is what sets humans apart from all other creatures, and it is also the key to our success as a species. However, it is far from clear how humans evolved the capacity for language. There is still much we do not know about the evolutionary origins and biological prerequisites of language and how they developed. At the same time, the future of language is also unclear as a result of the profound changes brought about by technological advances and digital transformation. The social, psychological and evolutionary consequences of these changes are still barely understood. New ubiquitous online knowledge databases and developments in artificial intelligence and neuroengineering are changing how language is evolving as well as how it is used and learned.
Until now, these topics have been researched largely in isolation. In order to yoke these areas of research together and yield deeper insights into the origins and evolution of language, the Swiss federal government is providing CHF 17 million in funding for the new “Evolving Language” NCCR for the 2020–2023 period.
UZH as leading house
“Evolving Language” will see researchers from all over Switzerland join forces to investigate the evolution of language more broadly than ever before. The NCCR is using an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together research groups from the humanities (linguistics, philosophy), biology, neurosciences, psychology and computer sciences.
The NCCR is based at the University of Zurich (primary home institution; 17 research groups) and at the University of Geneva (second home institution; 10 research groups). The national network also consists of three research groups at the University of Neuchâtel, two research groups at ETH Zurich and two research groups at EPF Lausanne as well as one research group each at the universities in Basel, Fribourg and Lausanne. The artificial intelligence research institute IDIAP (Institut Dalle Molle d’intelligence artificielle perceptive, Martigny) is also involved in the project with two research groups.
UZH researcher Balthasar Bickel will serve as the director of the new “Evolving Language” research network. We sat down with him to find out more about what exactly the NCCR is focusing on.
Congratulations, Mr. Bickel! It is a great achievement for UZH to be the leading house for the “Evolving Language” NCCR. What does being selected for this honor mean to you?
I’m extremely happy and am pleased to see that our many years of research preparation have borne fruit. Now we can execute our vision together.
What happens next?
The NCCR will focus on three topics. First, the dynamic of linguistic structures and how they have evolved. Second, the biological prerequisites for language and the question of whether (and how) neurotechnologies can be used to influence speech capabilities, including the ethical issues that arise. Third, we will also investigate the social conditions of language and how they are changing as a result of new avenues of communication.
You’re bringing different disciplines together in the new NCCR. Can you tell us, for example, how fruitful it is to connect biology and linguistics?
When we were laying the groundwork for the NCCR, we already saw new discoveries and innovative studies arising out of the collaboration between biology and linguistics. Bringing natural scientists and humanities scholars together allows for a totally new perspective on the development of human language. Maybe by comparing human and animal communication and cognition it will be possible to solve the great mystery of how language arose over the course of evolution. After all, it’s long been evident that language didn’t simply fall from the sky but rather developed gradually in small evolutionary steps. If we’re able to put together as many puzzle pieces as possible when it comes to evolutionary history, eventually we’ll have a fuller picture of how the “miracle” of language came to be.
Will any of the research focus on insights that can be applied in the medical field?
Yes, there are a lot of examples. As a rule, you can say that language has an astounding impact on how we think. The parts of our research that have medical applications include diagnosing and treating speech disorders. Or hearing loss in old age: Even when wearing a hearing aid, certain areas of the brain don't get stimulated anymore. We can help ensure that the brain gets the right training. And also for aphasia that occurred as the result of an accident or a disruption to the language processing center of the brain, currently there are promising neuroengineering technologies that can help people regain the ability to communicate.
You mentioned new technologies. What are the central research questions there?
For digital communication, you can imagine how smartphones are impacting our use of language. But today’s technological possibilities extend way beyond that, particularly in neuroengineering. Researchers are working on how to decode what a person wants to say without that person uttering a word. It’s a type of mind-reading, so to speak, and something that raises enormous ethical issues. In these areas of research, it’s really important not to miss the boat and to understand what’s happening so that you can jump in at the right time.
Seventeen research groups are taking part in this project. How will you manage to work together?
All of the research groups have a multidisciplinary structure. It was very important to us for humanities researchers, social scientists and natural scientists to be able work together on investigating the phenomenon of language so that their different methods and approaches can complement and fertilize each other.
What do you hope to have achieved once the project is over?
We would like to establish a large center for interdisciplinary language research, and we also hope to reshape the landscape of language research. We have to keep in mind just how important language is for us as humans. Language touches on fundamental questions about human beings, their perception and their social behavior. Language is so fundamental that we need the perspective of many different disciplines. To achieve this we need to tear down the walls that have traditionally separated the natural sciences and the humanities.