Humans are able to learn language so quickly because some knowledge of grammar is hardwired into our brains, said linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky fifty years ago.
In other words, we know some of the most fundamental things about human language unconsciously at birth, without ever being taught.
Now, cognitive scientists at The Johns Hopkins University have confirmed a striking prediction of the controversial hypothesis that human beings are born with knowledge of certain syntactical rules that make learning human languages easier.
"This research shows clearly that learners are not blank slates; rather, their inherent biases, or preferences, influence what they will learn. Understanding how language is acquired is really the holy grail in linguistics," said lead author Jennifer Culbertson, who worked as a doctoral student in Johns Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences
The study provided evidence remarkably consistent with Chomsky's hypothesis.
In the study, a small, green, cartoonish "alien informant" named Glermi taught participants, all of whom were English-speaking adults, an artificial nanolanguage named Verblog via a video game interface.
As a control, other groups were taught different made-up languages that matched Verblog in every way but used word order combinations that are commonly found in human languages.
Culbertson reasoned that if knowledge of certain properties of human grammars-such as where adjectives, nouns and numerals should occur-is hardwired into the human brain from birth, the participants tasked with learning alien Verblog would have a particularly difficult time, which is exactly what happened.
The adult learners who had had little to no exposure to languages with word orders different from those in English quite easily learned the artificial languages that had word orders commonly found in the world's languages but failed to learn Verblog.
It was clear that the learners' brains "knew" in some sense that the Verblog word order was extremely unlikely, just as predicted by Chomsky a half-century ago.
"What this study suggests is that the problem of acquisition is made simpler by the fact that learners already know some important things about human languages-in this case, that certain words orders are likely to occur and others are not," said Culbertson.