EL6028 - The origins and evolution of language

What will I learn on this module?

In addition to linguistics, this module brings together ideas from evolutionary biology, palaeontology and its subgroup palaeobiology, anthropology, physiology, neuroscience, genetics, primatology and computer science. Evidence from these and other sources is used to understand when and why language emerged in our ancestors.

The module starts with a very brief overview of the Western philosophical context in which debates over language are embedded. This context is used to examine how different linguists in the twentieth century approached the study of language, and the issue of whether language is a social or a cognitive (an external or an internal) phenomenon. We then look at theories of evolution and hypotheses concerning hominin phylogeny (i.e. Homo sapiens and all the ancestral species since our split from the last common ancestor with any extant species ). Turning to the actual evolution of language, we examine comparative data from other animal communication systems and the cognitive and physiological pre-requisites that are necessary for language. The final part of the module focuses on theories of language evolution, and in particular the debate between nativist and non-nativist accounts of language.

Throughout the module, you will evaluate the many varied perspectives on language evolution which you encounter, and establish your own view of and position within these debates, developing your ability to present your own viewpoint in speech and in writing.

How will I learn on this module?

The module will be delivered through a combination of interactive lectures and seminars. Key themes and concepts will be introduced in lectures, supported by seminars that allow further group working, discussion and debate. All topics and debates within the module will be supported by reference to relevant literature, which you will read outside of class to further develop your knowledge and understanding of the field.

In addition to learning during taught hours with the module tutor, you will be expected to undertake both directed and independent learning. Directed learning generally will take the form of preparation for seminars where you will be expected to contribute to group work and full class discussion. Independent learning generally will take the form of further reading and investigation, the consolidation of seminar notes, and revision/preparation for the assessment of the module.

All learning materials, tasks and readings will be posted on the eLP (e-learning portal) to facilitate full participation in the module. Additionally, you will receive formative feedback on your ideas and understandings throughout the module. The module’s final, summative assessment will also provide an opportunity for learning.

How will I be supported academically on this module?

The module aims to present a number of radically different theories of language evolution. Thus, lectures, seminars and tasks will develop your academic knowledge and skills, to help you attain the module learning outcomes. Your academic development will also be facilitated through engagement with the academic literature and by talking with your peers and the module tutor about my understanding of this literature (i.e. reading around the topic, and discussing and reflecting upon what you have read).

The module handbook provides details of lectures, seminars, reading lists and assessment criteria; lecture materials are made available on the eLP (see above). The module tutor will be available in lectures and seminars, as well as in ‘Feedback and consultation hours’ (i.e. ‘office hours’) and on email, to discuss any queries or concerns you have about how to excel academically on the module. Formative feedback will be on-going throughout seminar/workshop activities. Formative feedback will also be provided on an essay plan, prior to completion of the module’s formative assessment (an essay)

In addition, you have a designated Guidance Tutor throughout the entire duration of your programme. The academic side of the Guidance Tutor’s role includes: monitoring your ongoing academic progress; helping you to develop self-reflection skills necessary for continuous academic development; directing you to further available services which can help them with their academic skills (e.g. Library’s Skills Plus). You are advised to see your Guidance Tutor at least twice each semester to review your academic progress..

What will I be expected to read on this module?

All modules at Northumbria include a range of reading materials that students are expected to engage with. The reading list for this module can be found at: http://readinglists.northumbria.ac.uk
(Reading List service online guide for academic staff this containing contact details for the Reading List team – http://library.northumbria.ac.uk/readinglists)

What will I be expected to achieve?

Knowledge & Understanding:
1. A critical understanding of key issues, perspectives and debates within the study of language evolution.

Intellectual / Professional skills & abilities:
2. Present in speech and writing complex ideas as the basis for engagement in intellectual debate
3. Establish and justify your own position within complex debates and arguments

Personal Values Attributes (Global / Cultural awareness, Ethics, Curiosity) (PVA):
4. Demonstrate intellectual openness to contemporary academic and multi-disciplinary perspectives on language evolution.
5. Enhanced skills conforming to relevant standards of good academic practice

How will I be assessed?

Formative assessment

1. You will present your ideas during seminars and will receive formative feedback from the module tutor and peers on any perspectives you share Such formative will enable you to test and form your own understanding of language evolution .
2. A draft essay plan
This formative assessment will aim to ensure you organise your ideas and material for the assessed essay, by selecting relevant resources to help you approach the task..
Formative assessments address MLOs in ‘Knowledge and Understanding’, ‘Intellectual/Professional skills & abilities’, and ‘Personal Values Attributes’.

Summative (graded) Assessments
1. 3500-word academic essay
You will have to write an essay either on the title suggested by the module tutor or one agreed with him in advance.
You will be expected to demonstrate a clear engagement with the larger themes and debates of language evolution, focusing specifically on those identified in the essay title. The aim here is to ensure you get to grips with theoretical positions and concepts, while expressing your arguments in a format with which you should now be familiar.

The essay assessment will be part of the learning process, and addresses all five MLOS.

Feedback will be provided through comments on the script.





Module abstract

Please find details of this module in the other sections provided.

Course info

UCAS Code Q310

Credits 20

Level of Study Undergraduate

Mode of Study 3 years Full Time or 4 years with a placement (sandwich)/study abroad

Department Humanities

Location City Campus, Northumbria University

City Newcastle

Start September 2024 or September 2025

Fee Information

Module Information

All information is accurate at the time of sharing. 

Full time Courses are primarily delivered via on-campus face to face learning but could include elements of online learning. Most courses run as planned and as promoted on our website and via our marketing materials, but if there are any substantial changes (as determined by the Competition and Markets Authority) to a course or there is the potential that course may be withdrawn, we will notify all affected applicants as soon as possible with advice and guidance regarding their options. It is also important to be aware that optional modules listed on course pages may be subject to change depending on uptake numbers each year.  

Contact time is subject to increase or decrease in line with possible restrictions imposed by the government or the University in the interest of maintaining the health and safety and wellbeing of students, staff, and visitors if this is deemed necessary in future.


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