Humans are born with basic fundamental knowledge of language
A new study has revealed that humans are in fact born with the basic fundamental knowledge of language.
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," 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, said. The study's first author is Dr. David Gomez.
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?
Working with Italian newborn infants and their families, the researchers 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.
The study is published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.
(Posted on 10-04-2014)