Artificial grammar learning reveals inborn language sense, study shows

May 13, 2011, Johns Hopkins University

Parents know the unparalleled joy and wonder of hearing a beloved child's first words turn quickly into whole sentences and then babbling paragraphs. But how human children acquire language-which is so complex and has so many variations-remains largely a mystery. Fifty years ago, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky proposed an answer: Humans are able to learn language so quickly because some knowledge of grammar is hardwired into our brains. In other words, we know some of the most fundamental things about human language unconsciously at birth, without ever being taught.

Now, in a groundbreaking study, cognitive scientists at The Johns Hopkins University have confirmed a striking prediction of the controversial hypothesis that human beings are born with knowledge of certain syntactical rules that make learning human languages easier.

"This research shows clearly that learners are not blank slates; rather, their inherent biases, or preferences, influence what they will learn. Understanding how is acquired is really the holy grail in linguistics," said lead author Jennifer Culbertson, who worked as a doctoral student in Johns Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences under the guidance of Geraldine Legendre, a professor in the Department of Cognitive Science, and Paul Smolensky, a Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in the same department. (Culbertson is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester.)

The study not only provides evidence remarkably consistent with Chomsky's hypothesis but also introduces an interesting new approach to generating and testing other hypotheses aimed at answering some of the biggest questions concerning the language learning process.

In the study, a small, green, cartoonish "alien informant" named Glermi taught participants, all of whom were English-speaking adults, an artificial nanolanguage named Verblog via a video game interface. In one experiment, for instance, Glermi displayed an unusual-looking blue alien object called a "slergena" on the screen and instructed the participants to say "geej slergena," which in Verblog means "blue slergena." Then participants saw three of those objects on the screen and were instructed to say "slergena glawb," which means "slergenas three."

Although the participants may not have consciously known this, many of the world's languages use both of those word orders-that is, in many languages adjectives precede nouns, and in many nouns are followed by numerals. However, very rarely are both of these rules used together in the same human language, as they are in Verblog.

As a control, other groups were taught different made-up languages that matched Verblog in every way but used word order combinations that are commonly found in human languages.

Culbertson reasoned that if knowledge of certain properties of human grammars-such as where adjectives, nouns and numerals should occur-is hardwired into the human brain from birth, the participants tasked with alien Verblog would have a particularly difficult time, which is exactly what happened.

The adult learners who had had little to no exposure to languages with word orders different from those in English quite easily learned the artificial languages that had word orders commonly found in the world's languages but failed to learn Verblog. It was clear that the learners' brains "knew" in some sense that the Verblog word order was extremely unlikely, just as predicted by Chomsky a half-century ago.

The results are important for several reasons, according to Culbertson.

"Language is something that sets us apart from other species, and if we understand how children are able to quickly and efficiently learn language, despite its daunting complexity, then we will have gained fundamental knowledge about this unique faculty," she said. "What this study suggests is that the problem of acquisition is made simpler by the fact that learners already know some important things about human languages-in this case, that certain words orders are likely to occur and others are not."

This study was done with the support of a $3.2 million National Science Foundation grant called the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship grant, or IGERT, a unique initiative aimed at training doctoral students to tackle investigations from a multidisciplinary perspective.

According to Smolensky, the goal of the IGERT program in Johns Hopkins' Cognitive Science Department is to overcome barriers that have long separated the way that different disciplines have tackled language research.

"Using this grant, we are training a generation of interdisciplinary language researchers who can bring together the now widely separated and often divergent bodies of research on language conducted from the perspectives of engineering, psychology and various types of linguistics," said Smolensky, principal investigator for the department's IGERT program.

Culbertson used tools from experimental psychology, cognitive science, linguistics and mathematics in designing and carrying out her study.

"The graduate training I received through the IGERT program at Johns Hopkins allowed me to synthesize ideas and approaches from a broad range of fields in order to develop a novel approach to a really classic question in the language sciences," she said.

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not rated yet May 13, 2011
Uh, how does this do anything to "prove" Chomsky's hypothesis? Adults who already speak a language have acquired rules of syntax that will interfere with learning an artificial one. Specifically, English language speakers will "know" that adjectives should be on one side of the noun, not both. Would speakers of French, where both orders are used, show the same difference in ability to learn Verblog? Maybe not.
not rated yet May 13, 2011
The "task of learning".

If we literally knew anything about the word "learning", then the 'effort' associated with this word can not be the descriptor (the word) "task".

All forms of the word "learn" are misused ad infinitum , ad nauseum.

Assigning a structure to language UNIQUE to humans is a hundred year setback to the 'science of learning'.

So questions, such as yours, will remain in circulation for a hundred years, until laziness is set aside for real science and researchers devoted to commitment that exceeds hypothesis and "novel approaches".

Rant completed. I feel so much better now.
not rated yet May 13, 2011
dnatwork: Read the article in its entirety and you'll see that they fully addressed your complaint. They exposed their test groups to features commonly found in languages other than English as well, and yet the subjects had the most difficulty learning the "malformed" language. These data allow for us to infer that there are specific patterns that are expected by our brain for language to be absorbed, which would mean that we are, to some extent, pre-programmed.
not rated yet May 13, 2011
I read the whole thing. They are jumping to the conclusion they wanted to reach. In French, ma chemise propre does not me the same thing as ma propre chemise, and the French learn it just fine, but it is exactly this difference in word order within a single language that the Verblog test was based on. Cublerston's reasoning is flawed.
not rated yet May 13, 2011
They acknowledge this: " many languages adjectives precede nouns, and in many nouns are followed by numerals. However, very rarely are both of these rules used together in the same human language, as they are in Verblog." The sentence isn't as clear as it could be, granted, but they are saying that often in languages where the adjective follows the noun, the numeral also follows the noun and in languages where the adjective precedes the noun, the numeral also precedes the noun. They are suggesting that using a hybrid rule set makes the language more difficult to learn, which could mean that the brain is expecting a certain type of consistency for language rules.
not rated yet May 13, 2011
I agree with dnatwork that the conclusions do not follow from the results of this test. Adults who only know English will find most languages hard to learn, regardless of word orders. One cannot say that it is "clear" that they "sense" that the non-English-like order of Verblog is "unlikely". It means it's not familiar. Indeed many English speakers have never even tried another language, much less learned one that challenges their comfortable view of How Things Work. How about including speakers of other languages, or more interestingly, people who have learned several wildly different languages. Do they have a harder time with the "unlikely" order vs the "English" order, or do they find either easier to learn than English speakers do?
5 / 5 (1) May 14, 2011
If verblog is contrived by English speakers then it will unwittingly incorporate elements of English, not German, Hopi or Swahili, syntax and grammar. What they have discovered is the 'language specific' grammar formed during the earliest years of life and not the innate form, assuming that there is one, which would be below that level and not specific to any language.
not rated yet May 14, 2011
If verblog is contrived by English speakers, then..

This reminds me of a hidden element, unaware or not accounted for, by researchers. Of course, schools of philosophy are all too eager to hear words of 'objectivity' and 'bias'(-free) interpretations of science seeking consensus.

Call the sounds, brought forth by Nature's life forms, language.
At some point, producing sounds became innate.
At some later point, sound somehow fused with emotion.
Much later, the evolving life forms called humans became impress with sounds. Of course there are words needing no sound, (Braille). Conventionally, we like to think all words as having a sound.

I was "sounding off". :)

Thanks for an insightful comment,RKS.

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