14 Apr 2014

Babies are Born With a Fundamental Knowledge of Language

Esperanto is currently spoken by up to two million people worldwide. But Ludwik Zamenhof’s 19th-century utopian vision of a common world language never caught on as he had hoped.

Zamenhof would be gratified beyond the grave to hear that researchers now believe we all share the same linguistic traits and can explain why.

Considering the vastly different sounding languages spoken today and throughout history, you may find this hard to believe.

To most ears Mandarin is a long way off from English, while English is literally and figuratively continents apart from the Khoisan languages spoken in southern Africa that use clicks in place of some consonants.

But a new study suggests that all the world’s language may have developed similar sounding words because the human brain is hardwired to prefer certain sound combinations over others.

All languages share certain linguistic aspects. This poses the question of which is the stronger force –  “nature” or “nurture”.

The latest report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds light on this by explaining how humans are unique in their ability to acquire language.

It shows that we are in fact born with a fundamental knowledge of language and an in-bred biological instinct of sound patterns, similar to birds and their song.

Language wired into baby brains

No two languages are the same. But some features seem to be shared throughout languages. These features may appear from linguistic tenets that are working in all human brains.

So two questions arise: are infants born with understanding of what human words might sound like? Are infants biased to view specific sound sequences as more word-like than others?

Professor Iris Berent, of Boston’s Northeastern University, said: “The results of this new study suggest that, the sound patterns of human languages are the product of an inborn biological instinct, very much like birdsong.” Prof Berent co-authored the report with a research team from Italy’s  International School of Advanced Studies, led by Dr Jacques Mehler.

Why some word sounds ‘feel’ right

Take, for example, the sound-combinations that happen at the start of words.

Several languages have words that start with bl (e.g, blando in Italian, blink in English, and blusa in Spanish).

But few languages have words that start with lb. Russian is such a language (e.g. lbu, a word related to lob, “forehead”). Even in Russian, however, such words are very uncommon and outnumbered by words beginning with bl.

Linguists have implied that such formulations happen due to human brains being biased towards preferring syllables such as bla over lba.

Dr Berent’s earlier experiments have found that adult speakers exhibit such bias, even if their native language has no words approaching either bla or lba.

So from where does this know-how derive? Is it due to some universal inherited linguistic principle, or to adults’ lifelong experience with listening and producing their native language? Again, nature versus nurture.

How the brain reacts to certain words

Questions such as these prompted the scientists to examine how young babies perceive different kinds of words.

Researchers analysed the brain reactions of Italian newborns when listening to good and bad word candidates as described above (e.g. blif, lbif).

They did this using near-infrared spectroscopy, a silent and non-surgical technique that tells how the oxygenation of the brain cortex (grey matter just below the scalp) changes in time.

The team found that that newborns, just like adults, react differently to good and bad word candidates – even though they had not learned to talk or even babble yet. But they still share with adults a sense of how words should sound, the experiment found.

The results suggest that humans are born with the basic, foundational knowledge about the sound pattern of human languages.

It is difficult to envisage how differently languages would sound if humans did not enjoy the luck of sharing this kind of knowledge.

Thus, human babies are born with the certainty that they will readily recognize the sound patterns of words, regardless of which language they will grow up with.


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