Becoming human: Human infants link language and cognition, but what about the other great apes?

Miriam A. Novack*, Sandra Waxman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Human language has no parallel elsewhere in the animal kingdom. It is unique not only for its structural complexity but also for its inextricable interface with core cognitive capacities such as object representation, object categorization and abstract rule learning. Here, we (i) review recent evidence documenting how (and how early) language interacts with these core cognitive capacities in the mind of the human infant, and (ii) consider whether this link exists in non-human great apes—our closest genealogical cousins. Research with human infants demonstrates that well before they begin to speak, infants have already forged a link between language and core cognitive capacities. Evident by just three months of age, this language–cognition link unfolds in a rich developmental cascade, with each advance providing the foundation for subsequent, more precise and more powerful links. This link supports our species’ capacity to represent and convey abstract concepts and to communicate beyond the immediate here and now. By contrast, although the communication systems of great apes are sophisticated in their own right, there is no conclusive evidence that apes establish reference, convey information declaratively or pass down communicative devices via cultural transmission. Thus, the evidence currently available reinforces the uniqueness of human language and the power of its interface to cognition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20180408
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1789
StatePublished - Jan 6 2020


  • Cognition
  • Communication
  • Gesture
  • Infancy
  • Language
  • Primates

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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