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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Universal grammar

Linguists and cognitive scientists have long noticed two things about human language. First, all but the most severely mentally disabled children learn at least one language with ease, and second, almost all human languages fall into a few broad grammar categories. It has long been thought that these two aspects are related. That is, that the human brain is prewired with a few possible grammar constructs, and that babies have only to identify the type of language around them.
A new study by Jennifer Culberston, Paul Smolensky and Geraldine Legendre of Johns Hopkins University provides further evidence for a ‘grammar center’ of the brain. The scientists took advantage of some common grammar factors that distinguish different languages. For example, some languages, such as English, place the adjective in front of the noun (blue car), whereas others, like French, reverse that order (voiture bleue). Both French and English place numbers in front of nouns (trois chats, three cats), but other languages (such as Pumi, a language spoken in China) place the noun in front of the numeral.

The researchers used a video game to teach English-speaking adult volunteers a series of artificial languages. In some cases, the languages had word order combinations that corresponded to known human languages, but in one case (the language ‘Verblog’), adjectives preceded nouns but nouns preceded numerals, a virtually unheard of combination. The English-speaking participants had no trouble with artificial languages following either English or French rules of noun/adjective order. However, they had a great deal of trouble learning Verblog. The authors suggest that Verblog could not be made to fit the subjects’ prewired grammar expectations.