Humans innately impose grammatical structure on to languages that they learn, suggests research

Apr 03, 2014

Humans innately impose grammatical structure on to languages that they learn, suggests research co-authored by a linguist from Queen Mary University of London.

The study found that when people place adjectives and numbers after a noun (e.g. "hat blue" and "shoes two") they implicitly put adjectives before numerals.

This is because adjectives are closer to the noun in the than numbers, which is a fact that the study ties down to the meanings of these words.

These semantic relationships hold in English, and in the majority of the world's languages, according to the paper, by Professor David Adger from Queen Mary and Jennifer Culbertson, George Mason University, USA.

As part of the study, the linguists developed an artificially-constructed language, and tested how English-speaking volunteers learnt it. Three out of four times, the participants chose to group the words by semantic hierarchy, which the researchers claim indicates that they were consulting an internal structural hierarchy, not merely learning the word order by rote.

The finding adds further support to the notion that humans possess a "universal grammar" - the existence of which has been greatly debated since world-famous linguist Noam Chomsky proposed the idea 50 years ago. If the theory is correct, this innate structure should leave some trace in the way people learn languages.

"This research shows that, behind all of the apparent linguistic diversity of the world's languages, with words coming in all sorts of weird and wonderful orders, under the surface we are all using the same cognitive system," explains Professor Adger.

Explore further: Researchers gain new insight on language development

More information: Paper: Jennifer Culbertson and David Adger. "Language learners privilege structured meaning over surface frequency." PNAS 2014; published ahead of print March 31, 2014, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1320525111

Story: medicalxpress.com/news/2014-04… nsight-language.html

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Researchers gain new insight on language development

Apr 01, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—Two new studies appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveal what appear to be innate language preferences. In one study, Jacques Mehler of the Scuola Intern ...

New language discovery reveals linguistic insights

Jun 18, 2013

A new language has been discovered in a remote Indigenous community in northern Australia that is generated from a unique combination of elements from other languages. Light Warlpiri has been documented by University of Michigan ...

Historical context guides language development

Apr 14, 2011

Not only do we humans enjoy talking -- and talking a lot -- we also do so in very different ways: about 6,000 languages are spoken today worldwide. How this wealth of expression developed, however, largely remains a mystery. ...

The structure of language influences learning

Oct 03, 2013

There are words that convey a meaning, like verbs, nouns or adjectives, and others, like articles or conjunctions that sustain them, providing a structure for the sentence. A few years ago some scientists ...

Sound trumps meaning in first language learning

Mar 12, 2014

A new study reveals that four-to-seven-year-old children rely on the sounds of new nouns more than on their meaning when assigning them to noun classes, even though the meaning is more predictive of noun class in the adult ...

Study shows humans and apes learn language differently

Apr 02, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—How do children learn language? Many linguists believe that the stages that a child goes through when learning language mirror the stages of language development in primate evolution. ...

Recommended for you

World population likely to peak by 2070

5 hours ago

World population will likely peak at around 9.4 billion around 2070 and then decline to around 9 billion by 2100, according to new population projections from IIASA researchers, published in a new book, World Population and ...

Bullying in schools is still prevalent, national report says

6 hours ago

Despite a dramatic increase in public awareness and anti-bullying legislation nationwide, the prevalence of bullying is still one of the most pressing issues facing our nation's youth, according to a report by researchers ...

Study examines effects of credentialing, personalization

9 hours ago

Chris Gamrat, a doctoral student in learning, design and technology, recently had his study—completed alongside Heather Zimmerman, associate professor of education; Jaclyn Dudek, a doctoral student studying learning, design ...

Data indicate there is no immigration crisis

Oct 22, 2014

Is there an "immigration crisis" on the U.S.-Mexico border? Not according to an examination of historical immigration data, according to a new paper from Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

User comments : 0