Is There a Language Gene

Genes are responsible for pretty much every aspect of who we are as humans, from the color of our hair and the diseases to which we are susceptible to how well we sleep and our general state of happiness.

In 2001, scientists uncovered a gene responsible for our ability to speak, a “language gene” which they called Foxp2. A mutation of this gene that happened perhaps as little as 10,000 to 100,000 years ago in humans, provided us with the unique capacity to produce and understand speech.

The Foxp2 gene works by producing a protein (transcription factor) that turns other genes on and off. The genes it seems to turn on are the ones involved in facilitating connections between neurons.

The humanized form of the gene gives us the ability for a certain type of learning that allows us to make automatic associations with experiences. With regards to language, it allows us to hear the word “milk”, for example,and create an automatic connection of that sound with the experience of the yummy white liquid that we all know and love.

These embedded associations give us the ability to communicate on autopilot, allowing us to call up complex concepts and thoughts and almost instantaneously translate them into sounds. Beyond that, the gene may also help us coordinate the complex muscle movements we need in our mouth and tongue to produce the speech sounds. Interestingly, the gene is more active in females than in males, which no doubt accounts for their superior language ability.


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