Turns out Chomsky was right

The science of language acquisition. Image: Shutterstock

Language acquisition is a complex phenomenon that has been researched by linguists and cognitive scientists.

Fifty-years ago, American philosopher Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) said that children learn languages easily because grammar is hardwired to their brain. According to Chomsky, from the moment of birth children know fundamental things about language structure.

A group of scientists from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, US, created a new nanolanguage named Verblog. It was taught to a group of English-speaking adults via a video game interface–as part of the experiment, the scientists developed other artificial languages. If grammar were hardwired to the brain, the participants would have a really hard time trying to learn Verblog — and so they did. As quoted on the press release: “Adult learners who had had little to no exposure to languages with word orders different from those in English quite easily learned the artificial language that had word orders commonly found in the world’s languages but failed to learn Verblog.”

“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,” Cultberson said. According to this groundbreaking study Chomsky was right: human beings are born with some knowledge of syntactical rules, which makes language acquisition easier.

Noam Chomsky discusses theories of language in this Hitchcock lecture presented at the University of California Berkley in 2003.

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