May the Language Force be With You

Language learning in infants and adults is partially innate

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Moms and Dads alike rejoice when their baby says that first word. It is usually 'Daddy' as the mommies are usually doing a bit more coaching.

In a fascinating new John Hopkins study, researchers created two imaginary languages taught by a green alien named Glermi via video games. Of the two imaginary languages, the one more easily learned was following patterns found in most of our planet's language.

"Your child's ease in learning language is partially innate."

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 commented that this research shows clearly that language learners are not blank slates.

Some inherent language preferences influence one's ability to learn languages. Culbertson continued to say that the holy grail of linguistics is knowing how language is really acquired.

In the study, a small, green "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."

Study participants didn't know this, but many of the world's languages use both  those word orders that were presented by Glemi. in other words, many languages have adjectives preceding nouns.

Additionally, many nouns are followed by numerals. But, only rarely are both of these rules used together in any given language, as they are in Verblog. Verblog broke the innate rule.

Culbertson believes if such patterns in grammar are hardwired from birth instead of learned, the participants trying to learn alien Verblog would have a more difficult time than the participants learning the rule-following language. Culbertson was exactly right. May the language force be with you.

The Study

  • Small, green "alien informant" named Glermi taught participants, who were English speaking adults a pretend nanolanguage called Verblog using a video game
  • Glermi presented an unusual-looking blue alien object called a "slergena" on the screen and asked  participants to say "geej slergena", which in Verblog means "blue slergena"
  • Participants then saw three of those objects on the screen and were instructed to say "slergena glawb," which in Verblog means "slergenas three"
  • The control group was taught a different made-up language that matched Verblog in every way but used word order combinations that are commonly found in this planet's languages
Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 14, 2011
Last Updated:
May 18, 2011