Saturday, April 30, 2011

Language Evolution and the Brain

The brain is extremely interesting. We know so little about how it works and its capabilities.  How does it store memories or newly acquired information?  How do we learn language, the ability that distinguishes humans from all other life? An article in the Economist last week discussed two new studies about the evolutionary origins of language.

In an effort to find out where language comes from. Quentin Atkinson at the University of Auckland has been comparing the number of sounds in each language (phonemes) to the locations where each language is spoken. His findings suggest that all languages are derived from a single language which originated in southern Africa. That would mean that the first use of language happened before humans spread all over the world (as opposed to having spread out and then inventing languages in several places independently).

A single origin of language is fitting with the theory that language was key in humans’ ability to populate the world so successfully.

The next question is, what is it about humans that makes us able to use language? One theory has been proposed by Noam Chomsky. He thought that, because children are able to learn language so effortlessly, language must be hard wired into our brains in an “innate grammar”. That would mean that all languages share some basic structure or pattern- whatever structure our brains are hard wired for.

However, Michael Dunn of the Max Planck Institutes for Psycholinguistics has just published a paper that says the contrary. By plugging vocabulary and grammar structures from many languages into a computer program, he has concluded there is no basic structure or pattern that all languages or language families share. The similarities that Noam Chomsky must have been due to cultural similarities, not a biological hard wiring for language.

If it is true that there is no innate grammar, the language acquisition ability of the infant brain is even more impressive.

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