Babbling and Barking

Language is our most powerful tool. It evolved along with our species over the millennia. The UZH-led NCCR Evolving Language explores how exactly this came about. The new UZH Magazine shines a light on how animals communicate, how human language developed, and how it spread across the globe.

TiereHow do the roughly 7,000 languages in the world relate to each other, and how do children acquire language? (Illustration: Anne Sommer)

We live in modern, complex and highly technological societies. These societies emerged from our cumulative culture – our ability to build knowledge and pass it on from one generation to the next. Without our malleable, extremely versatile capacity for language, this wouldn’t be possible. But how did our language come to be? It’s one of the most fundamental questions of humankind. For a long time, it was considered too complex to answer – until now.

The NCCR Evolving Language, led by UZH linguist Balthasar Bickel, is tackling this far-reaching issue. It aims to investigate the origins of human language evolution. To achieve this goal, the ambitious project has brought together an unprecedented interdisciplinary group of researchers from all over Switzerland, including linguists, anthropologists, behavioral scientists, evolutionary biologists, geneticists, neuroscientists, geographers and philosophers. Together, they are tackling some major questions. How did human language develop? How do the roughly 7,000 languages in the world relate to each other, and how do children acquire language?

The researchers also look to the future, asking how our language might continue to develop alongside advances in neurotechnology. Will it one day be possible for us to read each other’s minds and directly transmit our thoughts without speaking? The NCCR builds on the broad interdisciplinary cooperation established as part of UZH’s previous University Research Priority Programs (URPP) Evolution in Action and Language & Space.

Other topics included in this issue: Biologist Stefan Lüpold explores what makes male animals more likely to succeed when it comes to mating. Art historian Sabine Sommerer researches how seating arrangements can be used to stage power structures. And an interview with ethicist Stefan Riedener focuses on what it means to do good.

Source: University of Zurich

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European Higher Education Organization is a public organization carrying out academic, educational and information activities on higher education in Europe.

The EHEO general plan stresses that:

  • Higher education systems require adequate funding and, as an investment in economic growth, public spending in higher education should be protected.
  • The challenges faced by higher education require more flexible governance and funding systems, which balance greater autonomy for education institutions with accountability to stakeholders.

Thus, EHEO plans:

  • improve academic and scientific interaction of universities;
  • protect the interests of universities;
  • interact more closely with public authorities of European countries;
  • popularize European higher education in the world;
  • develop academic mobility;
  • seek funding for European universities.