Our ability to recognise letters could be hard-wired into our brains

September 14, 2017 by Paul Breen, The Conversation
Credit: Shutterstock

Back in the 1960s, the linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky claimed that the human brain is hardwired with an innate understanding of language. This became known as the Universal Grammar theory, and was offered as an explanation of the speed at which children tend to learn their first language. Genetically, the human mind is predisposed to making sense of words and arranging them in a logical sequence as we overcome the initial disorder of learning a language.

Of course, not everybody agreed with Chomsky's linguistic theory, just as not everybody agrees with the political positions that he has latterly become better known for. One psychologist, Herbert Terrace, went so far in his opposition to Chomsky's ideas that he conducted an experiment in which he tried to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee. In a play on words, he even named his enforced research participant Nim Chimpsky.

But new research suggesting a link between written and something more fundamental in our brains could mean we need to look again at Chomsky's ideas. The study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, found that participants could guess what sounds were represented by letters from unfamiliar alphabets at rates better than you would expect from simple chance. If we have an innate ability to understand writing, then perhaps language more generally is something found much deeper in brains than other learned skills.

The new research considers how our minds work when we try to decipher the composition of sound, according to letters, like when we work out the difference between Chomsky and Chimpsky. What is that causes us to associate the K with the sharp sound it represents? Is it because of the physical shape where sharp points protrude from a straight and upright stem? Does that visual representation touch upon something hardwired into our memories on a par with ? Or, on the other hand, is this just how we are taught to interpret the letter K?

Neuroscientist Nora Turoman in Switzerland and experimental psychologist Suzy Styles in Singapore carried out a series of experiments to try to understand what makes letters look the way they do, and what shapes human understanding about the sounds they represent. The experiments involved showing individual letters from ancient writing systems to a research sample of 98 Singaporean university students and a larger group of 300 international internet users.

In both situations, the participants were shown unfamiliar letters from a diverse range of up to 56 alphabets, representing the sounds of /i/ (the "ee" sound in "feet"), and /u/ (the "oo" sound in "shoe"). Their task was then to guess which of the letters represented the two sounds and report this back to the researchers.

Initial findings from the research suggest that there is indeed a relationship between written shapes and the sounds they represent. When presented with a pair of unfamiliar letters, the readers could guess which was which at rates higher than expected by chance. This suggests that some characteristics of linguistic sounds can be extracted from individual letter shapes by something other than prior learning or experience.

Some may argue that the readers might just be drawing upon a set of physical properties common across all languages. But that would only be the case if the physical properties of all alphabets were the same, and they are not. Japanese, for example, is very different to Arabic or Latin. It seems then that something is happening at a much deeper level in our brains when we decipher the sounds of individual letters.

The researchers believe that basic properties of our senses are involved in matching speech sounds and the shapes deemed to represent them. In particular, they think there may be a link between how detailed a letter is in terms of how much ink is used to write it, and the pitch of the associated sound. In their experiments, the more detailed a letter was, the more likely participants were to guess that it represented the lower-pitched /u/ sound.

Why is this important?

A single study isn't definitive proof, of course, and we'd need more research to really find out. But it does suggest that, in the same vein as Chomsky's theory of universal grammar, associations between linguistic sounds and visual features could be hardwired into the . This makes the study significant for several reasons. First, it makes an important contribution to the fields of psycholinguistics (the relationship between language and psychological processes) and understanding how we acquire languages, for both native and non-native learners of languages.

Second, it could lead to new ways of understanding and teaching literacy by giving readers a better understanding of how speech sounds and written letters are linked. This could be particularly helpful to those who have difficulties with deciphering individual letters within words.

Finally, the research could have an impact on the way that rare languages that are mainly spoken are finally recorded in written versions. Understanding the visual properties of speech sounds could help develop new writing systems that more closely represent the spoken language.

If the human brain is indeed hardwired to particular ways of decoding words themselves, and not just their grammatical order, then the power of individual letters could be far greater than we had ever imagined. This study has given us a whole new way of looking at Chimpsky and Chomsky, and the associations we have not just with names but the letters that give them shape.

Explore further: Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

Related Stories

How the brain changes when we learn to read

May 11, 2017

Right now, you are reading these words without much thought or conscious effort. In lightning-fast bursts, your eyes are darting from left to right across your screen, somehow making meaning from what would otherwise be a ...

Words can sound 'round' or 'sharp' without us realizing it

February 9, 2017

Our tendency to match specific sounds with specific shapes, even abstract shapes, is so fundamental that it guides perception before we are consciously aware of it, according to new research in Psychological Science, a journal ...

A nose by any other name would sound the same, study finds

September 12, 2016

In a study that shatters a cornerstone concept in linguistics, an analysis of nearly two-thirds of the world's languages shows that humans tend to use the same sounds for common objects and ideas, no matter what language ...

Unraveling the roots of dyslexia

March 12, 2009

By peering into the brains of people with dyslexia compared to normal readers, a study published online on March 12th in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, has shed new light on the roots of the learning disability, ...

Recommended for you

Plague likely a Stone Age arrival to central Europe

November 22, 2017

A team of researchers led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has sequenced the first six European genomes of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis dating from the Late Neolithic ...

How to cut your lawn for grasshoppers

November 22, 2017

Picture a grasshopper landing randomly on a lawn of fixed area. If it then jumps a certain distance in a random direction, what shape should the lawn be to maximise the chance that the grasshopper stays on the lawn after ...

Ancient barley took high road to China

November 21, 2017

First domesticated 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, wheat and barley took vastly different routes to China, with barley switching from a winter to both a winter and summer crop during a thousand-year ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Sep 14, 2017
Has the brain adapted to language, or did our language adapt to the brain?

Innate simply means that the language mirrored innate patterns in the brain. Why do it the hard way? Utilise what is already there.

But of course the process is two way and some degree of symbiosis between brain and abstract shared language is also part of our evolutionary mix!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.