Like most important things in life, we shouldn’t take the ability to speak for granted.
KEN WAS OBVIOUSLY IMMUNE TO HOW HE WAS COMING ACROSS. Undeniably knowledgeable and passionate about IT services, this rookie sales rep simply didn’t have an “off” button, and he was oblivious to the sideways glances that I shared with my two IT colleagues.
Eventually, my mild amusement turned to more serious concerns about his wellbeing; his face began to redden, and I wondered exactly when and how he was intending to take his next breath.
Ken was like a toddler who has emptied his lungs after discharging a wail of ear-shattering proportions. The pause that follows is not the end of the tantrum, but the point at which our young subject struggles to restock his lungs in order to begin again.
Just so, Ken stopped to force in more air, only to pick up where he left off at an even faster pace. His robotic, nine-minute sales pitch didn’t stop until he had presented all of his USPs (unique selling propositions), at which point ensued an embarrassing silence.
Now, I have to be honest: I felt a connection to Ken and couldn’t help but feel empathetic. As a young advertising sales rep in the early 1990s, I’d been thrown in the deep end too, and was regularly sent on sales trips in Europe and the Middle East. I’m horrified when I think of how much I talked at clients rather than to them. The truth is, even today I really have to concentrate on making sure I don’t talk too much.
If you feel that you, too, are a bit garrulous…awareness is the first step. And recent research indicates that it may be your genes that cause it, not your passionate, emotional personality. Scientists have discovered a suite of genes that appear to be controlled by a master-switch called Foxp2 which, when inactive, causes humans severe speech and language problems and may be a key element in our unique linguistic abilities.
The Foxp2 is found in chimpanzees, too, but neuroscientists at the University of California identified 116 genes that respond differently to the human version. These make up the suite I referenced earlier that has been linked to brain development, cognition and physical articulation, such as speech-associated body and facial movement.
While the results hint at a central role for Foxp2 in the evolution of language, the scientists caution against calling it “the language gene,” as some have in the past.
“Either Foxp2 itself is pretty damn important,” one is quoted in New Scientist, “or it’s part of a regulatory circuit—something else is regulating Foxp2 that no one else has found yet.”
Like most important things in life, we shouldn’t take the ability to speak for granted. We haven’t always been able to speak, although there is a striking lack of consensus on when we gained the ability among professional linguists, archaeologists, psychologists and anthropologists.
There is considerable speculation about the language capabilities of our ancestors, often based on the anatomical structure of the face and resulting position of jaw and larynx that allowed for the range of sounds needed to produce words, and particularly vowels.
Even in 2007, when scientists found the skeletal remains of a Homo Neanderthal with a developed hyoid bone that would aid speech, experts including paleoanthropologist Richard G. Klein of Stanford University argued that while physical apparatus for speech existed, doubt remained about whether the Neanderthal brain had actually reached the level of complexity required for modern speech.
So that leaves the development of language proper with us Homo Sapiens, who many argue emerged within the last 70,000-50,000 years (although even in this window there is conjecture about how long it took language to develop).
There are so many fascinating aspects of the subject: the different histories of speech and language, the role of hand signs and physical expression and the way languages evolved. If you live in North America, you may not realize that, with a bit of planning, a road trip the length of New York to Miami can pass through 10 European countries, all with different vocabularies.
I’ll finish where I started, with a lesson that Ken and those of us guilty of speaking too much could all learn from. An English friend of mine was on the phone negotiating with the CEO of a potential client from Finland. The Fins have a reputation as a calm and measured race, and Michael’s suggested rate of €15,000 for the proposed consultancy work was met with stony silence. After a few seconds Michael dropped his rate, “Would €13,500 work better?” Again, silence. Finally, concerned that he was about to lose the business, he quickly blurted out his final rate “OK, €12,500.” “Deal,” the CEO calmly replied.
A few weeks later Michael met the CEO face to face and mentioned what a tough negotiator he had been to which the Fin look surprised. “Not in the least,” he remarked “I thought €15,000 was a fair price but before I could accept you insisted on reducing your quote twice within 30 seconds.” One+
One+ May 2012,