The innate ability to learn language

March 26, 2012 By Angela Herring
Psychology professor Iris Berent is using behavioral and neuroimaging techniques to investigate whether our ability to learn language is innate. Credit: Mary Knox Merrill

All human languages contain two levels of structure, said Iris Berent, a psychology professor in Northeastern’s College of Science. One is syntax, or the ordering of words in a sentence. The other is phonology, or the sound structure of individual words.

Berent — whose research focuses on the phonological structure of — examines the nature of linguistic competence, its origins and its interaction with reading. While previous studies have all centered on adult language acquisition, she is now working with to address two core questions.

“First,” she said, “do infants have the capacity to encode phonological rules? And, second, are some phonological rules innate?”

To address the first issue, Berent collaborated with neuroscientists Janet Werker, of the University of British Columbia, and Judit Gervain, of the Paris-based Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

By utilizing an optical brain imaging technique called near-infrared spectroscopy, or NIRS, the researchers found that newborns have the capacity to learn linguistic rules. This finding — published this month in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience — suggests that the neural foundations of language acquisition are present at birth.

Armed with this knowledge, Berent has begun conducting behavioral studies on more than two-dozen infants to explore whether linguistic rules are innate or entirely learned.

“We want to see whether infants prefer certain sound patterns to others even if neither occurs in their language,” Berent explained. “For instance, we know that prefer sequences such as bnog over bdog. Would six-month-old infants show this preference even if their language (English) does not include either sequence?”

For the study, each child is placed in front of a video screen that displays an image pulsing in coordination with rotating sounds, such as “bnog” and “bdog.” Berent hypothesized that infants would look longer at the video screen when they hear sounds to which they are innately biased.

Preliminary results have upheld the hypothesis, but Berent is still accepting new subjects for the study. Her entire research program forms part of a new book called “The Phonological Mind,” which will be published by Cambridge University Press this year.

More information: A symposium on the nature, origins and use of language will take place on March 30 at 12:30 p.m. in the Curry Student Center Ballroom.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Researchers test the brain's number sense perception

October 9, 2015

Number sense hypothesis holds that the intuitive understanding of numbers is a primary visual property, like color sense or physical orientation. In nature, this refers not to any ability to count, but to visually sense the ...

Runner's high linked to cannabinoid receptors in mice

October 6, 2015

(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers from several institutions in Germany has found a link between cannabinoid receptors in mice and what is commonly known as "runner's high." In their paper published in Proceedings of ...

Researchers build a digital piece of brain

October 8, 2015

If you want to learn how something works, one strategy is to take it apart and put it back together again. For 10 years, a global initiative called the Blue Brain Project—hosted at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne ...


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.