What is the value of language? Indeed, why is it something that we study, or devote the slightest iota of attention to? ‘Babel’, the first episode of Fry’s Planet Word, presented by Stephen Fry, explores this very notion, focussing upon the origins of language as a uniquely human concept, helping both teachers and students to gain a greater understanding of this foundational method of communication and thus obtain a greater appreciation, both of its importance and how it continues to shift and develop over time.
At its root, language is the grounding method of communication, but it does far more than that, with the acquisition and development of our utilisation of language being, according to Fry, ‘the most complex bit of brain processing that we know of.’ It goes beyond an animalistic need to communicate fear, hunger, danger, etc., becoming a nuanced social medium that differentiates vastly from person to person based upon a multitude of factors: the particular language you speak, the breadth of your personal vocabulary and manner in which you use it, the register that you use, whether or not in is appropriate to use idioms and colloquialisms regarding the situation, the list goes on and on. In short, language is something that uniquely identifies us, but also allows us to find commonality and communicate with those around us.
At present, there are approximately 7,000 languages in use today, varying from a handful of users, to over a billion. Whilst many of these languages differentiate in their conception of sentence structure, complexity, breadth of vocabulary, whether or not they are vocalised (in the case of sign language), the vast majority are made up of the same basic components: nouns, to identify things; adjectives, to describe them; verbs, to tell you what they do. It is from the use of these building blocks that much of what we identify as being a uniquely human quality springs from, a sinuous and consistently changing lens through which our worldview is shaped, in addition to allowing other people to share in our perspective.
Fry demonstrates the pervasive and fundamental nature of language in ‘Babel’ through a myriad of ways: the initial acquisition of language as the documentary tracks 15 month old Ruby over a one year period, philology, the comparisons between the Turkana language and English, how communication methods between animals are vastly different than those explored in humans, the determining factors on if a language flourishes or dies out, how our brains are affected by language use, and many other topics.
‘Babel’ proves to be an informative and uniquely insightful glance into the value of language and how it underpins so much of our daily lives, and will prove to be of particular interest to English and Language students as a supplement to their primary studies.
Here’s a list of TV4Education resources that can be used in relation to the topics covered in this post. If you use the SmartSuite version of TV4Education just search for the titles below on your site.