Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Language structure: You're born with it

Date:
April 8, 2014
Source:
Northeastern University College of Science
Summary:
Humans are unique in their ability to acquire language. But how? A new study shows that we are in fact born with the basic fundamental knowledge of language, thus shedding light on the age-old linguistic 'nature vs. nurture' debate.

A new study shows that we are born with the basic fundamental knowledge of language, thus shedding light on the age-old linguistic "nature vs. nurture" debate.
Credit: © Vladimir Mucibabic / Fotolia

Humans are unique in their ability to acquire language. But how? A new study published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences shows that we are in fact born with the basic fundamental knowledge of language, thus shedding light on the age-old linguistic "nature vs. nurture" debate.

While languages differ from each other in many ways, certain aspects appear to be shared across languages. These aspects might stem from linguistic principles that are active in all human brains. A natural question then arises: are infants born with knowledge of how the human words might sound like? Are infants biased to consider certain sound sequences as more word-like than others? "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," said Prof. Iris Berent of Northeastern University in Boston, who co-authored the study with a research team from the International School of Advanced Studies in Italy, headed by Dr. Jacques Mehler. The study's first author is Dr. David Gσmez.

BLA, ShBA, LBA

Consider, for instance, the sound-combinations that occur at the beginning of words. While many languages have words that begin by bl (e.g., blando in Italian, blink in English, and blusa in Spanish), few languages have words that begin with lb. Russian is such a language (e.g., lbu, a word related to lob, "forehead"), but even in Russian such words are extremely rare and outnumbered by words starting with bl. Linguists have suggested that such patterns occur because human brains are biased to favor syllables such as bla over lba. In line with this possibility, past experimental research from Dr. Berent's lab has shown that adult speakers display such preferences, even if their native language has no words resembling either bla or lba. But where does this knowledge stem from? Is it due to some universal linguistic principle, or to adults' lifelong experience with listening and producing their native language?

The Experiment

These questions motivated our team to look carefully at how young babies perceive different types of words. We used near-infrared spectroscopy, a silent and non-invasive technique that tells us how the oxygenation of the brain cortex (those very first centimeters of gray matter just below the scalp) changes in time, to look at the brain reactions of Italian newborn babies when listening to good and bad word candidates as described above (e.g., blif, lbif).

Working with Italian newborn infants and their families, we observed that newborns react differently to good and bad word candidates, similar to what adults do. Young infants have not learned any words yet, they do not even babble yet, and still they share with us a sense of how words should sound. This finding shows that we are born with the basic, foundational knowledge about the sound pattern of human languages.

It is hard to imagine how differently languages would sound if humans did not share such type of knowledge. We are fortunate that we do, and so our babies can come to the world with the certainty that they will readily recognize the sound patterns of words-no matter the language they will grow up with.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Northeastern University College of Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. D. M. Gomez, I. Berent, S. Benavides-Varela, R. A. H. Bion, L. Cattarossi, M. Nespor, J. Mehler. Language universals at birth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1318261111

Cite This Page:

Northeastern University College of Science. "Language structure: You're born with it." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 April 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140408122316.htm>.
Northeastern University College of Science. (2014, April 8). Language structure: You're born with it. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140408122316.htm
Northeastern University College of Science. "Language structure: You're born with it." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140408122316.htm (accessed September 20, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Could Grief Affect The Immune Systems Of Senior Citizens?

Could Grief Affect The Immune Systems Of Senior Citizens?

Newsy (Sep. 19, 2014) — The study found elderly people are much more likely to become susceptible to infection than younger adults going though a similar situation. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Food Addiction Might Be Caused By PTSD

Food Addiction Might Be Caused By PTSD

Newsy (Sep. 18, 2014) — New research shows that women who suffer from PTSD are three times more likely to develop a food addiction. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Corporal Punishment on Decline, Debate Renews

Corporal Punishment on Decline, Debate Renews

AP (Sep. 16, 2014) — Corporal punishment in the United States is on the decline, but there is renewed debate over its use after Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse. (Sept. 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
FDA Eyes Skin Shocks Used at Mass. School

FDA Eyes Skin Shocks Used at Mass. School

AP (Sep. 15, 2014) — The FDA is considering whether to ban devices used by the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts, the only place in the country known to use electrical skin shocks as aversive conditioning for aggressive patients. (Sept. 15) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins