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Language Evolution


Admission Requirements

Bachelor degree (completed)


Language is a major characteristic that makes humans unique as a species. How did we get from the chirps, howls and calls of monkeys and apes to the complex and sophisticated signal of human speech? What is the origin of this unique form of communication? This is a question that has fascinated researchers since long ago. Yet, we do not have a clear picture of how language arose and what it is exactly that gives humans the ability to use it. Until relatively recently it was hard to approach questions on language evolution without resorting to speculation because there is not much tangible evidence to be found in this area. Speech is a rapidly fading signal and we do not have recordings of human’s first utterances. Written language is a relatively recent phenomenon, so the history of writing systems will not help us to study the origins of language. Researchers therefore had to come up with creative methods to tackle questions on the origins of language.

In this research seminar we will take an interdisciplinary journey through the field of language evolution and explore the many creative ways evidence can be gathered to study the origins of this unique human trait. We will look at widely varying theories and review methods and results from research in genetics, computer simulations, field work data on emerging sign languages, laboratory experiments and comparisons with other cultural systems like music. Language can be seen as a complex adaptive dynamical system that evolves and constantly adapts to the humans that are learning and using it. What kind of mechanisms support this process of cultural evolution? How can we study it in a quantitative way? How does all this new data fit with original theories on the origins of language?

We will explore current literature and experiment with computational and in-class simulations of language evolution processes. This course will help create an understanding of the breadth of the field of language evolution and the creative and interdisciplinary approach needed to investigate its questions.

Course Objectives

After successful completion of this course, the student will be able to:

  • Identify and list the many creative ways evidence can be gathered to study the origins of language

  • Describe different theories that have been proposed

  • Design and implement a computer model to study aspects of language evolution

  • Evaluate and draw conclusions from computer modeling work

  • Evaluate and judge laboratory experiments that study aspects of language evolution

  • Observe, analyze and report on the experimental live emergence of an artificial language

  • Summarize how mechanisms of cultural evolution shape language

  • Generate ideas for future studies and creative use of data in the field of Language Evolution

Time Table

The dates are included in the Media Technology calendar

Mode of Instruction

Lectures and self study

Assessment Method

Written paper (50 %), presentation (20%) , homework assignments (30%)

Written paper (50 %), presentation (20%) , homework assignments (30%). All need to be sufficient and the final grade is a weighted average, where two of the (larger) group homework assignments count twice for the homework assignment grade.

There is an opportunity to retake the final paper assessment, by submitting a new final paper.



Reading List

Study materials will be provided by the lecturer during the course


  • You have to sign up for courses and exams (including retakes) in uSis.

  • Please also register for the course in [Blackboard].

  • Due to limited capacity, non-Media Technology students (external and exchange) can only register after consultation with and approval of the programme coordinator/study advisor (


Barbara Visscher-van Grinsven, programme coordinator/study advisor for the Media Technology MSc programme (


Curriculum link