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Humans wired for grammar at birth

A screen shot from a language learning experiment shows a
A screen shot from a language learning experiment shows aThe Johns Hopkins University

"Blueberry!" I tell my 15-month-old son as I hand him one, hoping that he makes the connection between the piece of fruit and its name as I daydream about the glorious day when he says, "Please, Dad, can I have another blueberry?" 

For now, he points at the bowl full of tasty morsels and babbles something incomprehensible. His pediatrician, family and friends all assure me that he's on the right track. Before I know it, he'll be rattling off the request for another blueberry and much, much more. 

This pointing and babbling is all a part of the language learning process, they say, even though the process itself remains largely a mystery. One prominent, though controversial, hypothesis is that some knowledge of grammar is hardwired into our brains.

"There's some knowledge that the learner has that actually makes this process easier," Jennifer Culbertson, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester, explained to me today.

This hypothesis was originally proposed 50 years ago by philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Culbertson recently confirmed it with an experiment featuring a virtual green blob for a teacher named Glermi who speaks a nonsensical language called Verblog. 

Teacher Glermi

In the study, Glermi taught participants – all of them English-speaking adults – his language via a video game interface.

In one experiment, Glermi displayed an unusual looking blue alien object called a "slergena" on the screen and instructed the participants to say "geej slergena," which in Verblog means "blue slergena." Then participants saw three of those objects on the screen and were instructed to say "slergena glawb," which means "slergena three."

For English speakers, the word order of "blue slergena" is normal but "slergena three" is out of whack. Many of the world's languages use both word orders – that is, in many languages adjectives precede nouns and many nouns are followed by numerals. However, rarely are both of these rules used together in the same language.

"We created a language that actually substantiates that (rare) pattern," Culbertson explained. "What we want to know is do learners actually have a problem learning that pattern or is the fact that it is rare across the world's languages just a coincidence. Is it something fundamental or not?"

She and colleagues at The Johns Hopkins University, where the experiments were performed while Culbertson was a doctoral student, found that adults had difficulty learning to speak proper Verblog. Versions of "bad Verblog" that have word orders common to the world's languages were easy to learn.

The finding, Culbertson notes, supports the hypothesis that certain properties of human grammar – such as where adjectives, nouns and numerals should occur – are hardwired into the human brain from birth.

The finding in adult test subjects, she adds, shows that these fundamental rules stay with us as we grow older. The adults could have had, for example, trouble learning all versions of Verblog, or used a more sophisticated, acquired language learning ability to learn all versions of Verblog. 

"The fact of the matter is they didn't learn the one that is also rare typologically. So that suggests that there are at least some things that stay constant as we grow up," she said.

Replicating with kids

This summer, Culberston plans to run the experiment with kids. She anticipates replication of the results, but also expects to see some differences. Children are widely thought to be able to learn language more quickly and easily than adults, she noted.

And my son, she assured me, is on the right track. As her results indicate, the fundamentals of grammar are already in place. "That's what makes his job easier," she told me. Soon, he'll be asking for his blueberries in a language I can comprehend. 

And so, with patience, I count out "one, two, three blueberries" and put them on his tray. He looks at me, smiles, and picks them up with one fell swoop and stuffs them in his mouth. 

More stories on learning languages: 

A study on the findings are under review for publication in the journal Cognition.

John Roach is a contributing writer for Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook pageor following's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).