Sep 27, 2011

The Discovery Files: Birth And Syntax

Cognitive scientists at Johns Hopkins University have new evidence that confirms an older theory that human beings are born with some innate knowledge of certain rules of linguistics that make learning human languages easier.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Wired for Speech. (Sound effect: newborn baby cries)

(Sound effect: theme music) I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

"Gleej, slergena, glawb" do not adjust your ear buds. I'm trying to speak 'verblog' an artificial nanolanguage developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University to test a hypothesis from over a half-century ago.

Let me back up a bit. 50 years ago, linguist/philosopher Norm Chomsky[1] put it out there that we are born already knowing some grammatical rules or at the very least having certain language sense kind of wired into our brains.

The Johns Hopkins study demonstrates that perhaps Chomsky was right, and in addition to death and taxes[2], we might have two more things on the 'sure' list: birth and syntax. We come into this world knowing certain rules that make it easier to learn language.

To test the theory the team came up with this made-up language called 'verblog,' constructed to utilize word-order combinations not usually found in most human languages. Sure enough, participants had difficulty learning verblog in its pure form, but could more easily grasp versions of it if some of the word-order combinations were adjusted to match those commonly found in human languages. It's as if the brain knew that the structure was unlikely.

Now we may be born with some linguistic capabilities but I'm sure one of them wasn't how to diagram a sentence; still can't do that.

The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.


[1] Norm Chomsky
-- An great American linguist. For more information, please visit at
[2] Death and tax
-- A proverb. Please refer to

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