The genetic blueprints of language

In 2006 an associate professor at MIT included his 9 month child in an experiment meant to acquire and analyze his baby first sounds, in the ambiguous attempt to unravel how humans acquire their first words and the early grammatical knowledge. He installed 11 overhead, omni directional fisheye video cameras and 14 ceiling-mounted microphones to record all activity in his home. The data collected was transferred in the Media Lab of MIT for analyze. The conduct of such experiments shows that even in our days the language acquisition remains unclear. Many hypotheses had been made on how children learn language so fast, but yet we don't have definitive responses. "Understanding human language processing is an important scientific goal in its own right and is part of the general field of cognitive science. However, an understanding of human language processing can often be helpful in building better machine models of language" (Jurafsky & Martin, 2000). When we mention language acquisition this generally refers to the first language learned. Does human brain have innate predisposition towards language or it emerges with environment interactions? Or it is just a statistical learning? The innate grammar knowledge according to Chomsky is based on the observations made many times before him from philosophers exploring the language subject. Since 13s century Roger Bacon observed that all languages are build upon a common grammar. From here me, Simona and Norbert began our discussion. Me and my colleagues where questioning that, if this blueprint doesn't exist, how come we are sharing the same grammatical structure? Norbert argued that this could also depend from evolutionary theory of human kind, all of us derive from a homo sapiens appeared many thousand years ago in Africa and all of languages derive from one language, that's why they may have the same basic grammatical structure. To me the evolutionary theory don't give obviousness on how human properties such as language should or had evolve, so it's not enough to explain the existence of the universal grammar. Dr. Terrence Deacon answering the question "How old language is" argues: "If language is new, if language is only a hundred thousand year old, or even less, a fifty or sixty thousand year old kind of process, then we should expect that it has had little effect on human brains, On the other hand, if language has been around for a good deal of our evolutionary past, say a few million years, or even a million years, that's adequate time for it to have structured and reshaped the brain to be better satisfied to the problem of processing and using language in real time"(Deacon, 2009). Another recent research from L. Vandervert that goes opposite to this conclusion, shows how language could had evolve from his state of highly repetitive visual spatial process in working memory to direct collaboration with the cerebellum till it have become "Hardwired" in the brain. Experiments have been done in the Broca's Area which is a potion of the left inferior frontal gyrus. This area seems to be responsible for language usage. The experiments showed that this area is selectively activated by phrases that meet universal grammar requirements and showed no processing activity for "non sense" phrases.

The experiment at the MIT is not the only one done to this purpose, "In 1211, Frederick II, Emperor of Germany, in an attempt to discover the natural language of God, raised dozens of children in silence. God's preferred language never emerged; the children never spoke any language and all ultimately died in childhood" (van Cleve, 1972). According to Norbert "A catholic father, some times ago, grow up his child, not talking to him for several years. He was confident that the child was going to speak Jewish as the Bible acclaims is the language that god gifted to human kind. But unfortunately the child was not able to talk". These sad stories came out meanwhile I was discussing the Feral children stories I had read. All these stories seem to confirm the Critical Period Hypothesis which states that the human ability to fully acquire language is limited till a certain age, usually 3-6 years. Chomsky and other researchers use this fact to criticize behaviourist approach which states that language is learned statistically selecting the information and the grammar from outside stimuli. Pinker criticize behaviourist approach arguing "Almost every sentence anybody voices is an original combination of words, never previously uttered, therefore a language cannot consist only of word combinations learned through repetition and conditioning; the brain must contain innate means of creating endless amounts of grammatical sentences from a limited vocabulary" (Pinker, 1995). Simona gives as example her little cousin that learned three different languages before the age of six. She says, "The girl speaks perfectly English German and Bulgarian, she have also the accent of the place she have been living". The Critical Period Hypothesis is an important factor that makes me think that there is genetic blueprint. According to a research from Singleton and Newport a child that learns his first language, from parents that use that language as a second one, shows to have acquired it perfectly. The imperfections of the parents where not present in the child and his language fluency was near native. This result goes over the behaviorist approach that provides a child speaking exactly as his parents that where the only stimuli he had. The second argument Chomsky gives in support of his theory is the poverty of stimulus. This argument claims that the grammar is unlearnable given the communication that children are exposed to. It comes to my mind what words do I use to communicate with my little cousin Elisa. I never use grammatically correct sentences, in fact, the most of the words I communicate to her are also not correct, changed somehow into "sweet and funny" words that strangely I think she can understand better.! A premise to the poverty of stimulus argument is that a grammar can not be learned only by positive evidence and children are rarely exposed to negative evidence. How can a children learn a correct grammar if he has not been exposed adequately to anything like that? This can happen only if the basic grammatical structure is already there. Researches have been done to demonstrate that language can be learned only by positive evidence and other to demonstrate that in fact negative evidence for the child is not only to be corrected but also never encounter a wrong language usage. The result is that the child understands that this usage never occurs because it's wrong and makes the corrections by his own.

Simona claims that "Even mentally disabled people are able to arrange different words in a way to form statements to express their thoughts. This can relate to our topic as an observation that there is some kind of basic grammar", also Norbert says "I've seen children having problems with basic mathematical operations like summing and subtracting but no one that was not able to speak correctly". As we have seen in the lecture just people with a damaged brain have syntax problems. Taking in count the problems that "Low IQ" children have, we can see that in language usage they may have problems understanding the meaning of language they hear and use but always can form correct sentences.

Simona cite Descartes to explain that language is only a human characteristic "even if you circumstance animals in a "language environment", they won't be able use language as humans. This is a contradiction to the statement of behaviorists who claim that we acquire language basically only because of stimuli". I was watching an impressive video about Kenzi a pygmy chimpanzee, he was raised in a language using environment and researchers explain that his body structure, especially the hand structure make him perfect for sign language. Kenzi was able to understand numerous words and could associate images to those words by pushing the right button labeled with the picture. I've read that other chimpanzees are able to communicate using sign language. Infact 90% of all communication between animals is non verbal. "Most communication between humans is done via body language, there are also other methods such as sign language and written communication. There is a big difference between language and communication. This is what separates humans from animals"(Mike Oram, 2009). Communication is a characteristic of all animals, but as we have seen till now no animal is able to use language like humans do. Animals trained for years, raised in language using environment could never form sentences, they can not master the grammar. This is a fact that shows the validity of innate theory. In contradiction with facts behaviorist theory foresee that statistically chimpanzees should master language because they have had enough stimuli from the environment.

At least what I find interesting in Chomsky Universal Grammar theory is the description of the formal grammar. The formal grammar is given as a set of rules for writing and rewriting strings from a given alphabet. It could also be used as a recognizer, for example given a string this set can evaluate if it belongs to the language, if it is correctly formed. Using Word editor I'm taking advantage this set of rules applied in technology as a correction tool. As I have seen in mathematics and physics rules, nature phenomenon's have only one correct way of functioning and all we have to do is observe and discover them. I'm thinking about language the same way, if something universal is found in every language than that characteristic is universal like mathematic and physic rules, so statistical phenomenon's could not explain "how it works". Maybe we don't have the genetic blueprint of language, but from what I have read Chomsky gives the most complete argumentation for his conclusion.

References

  1. Chomsky, N. (1980). Rules and representations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  2. Pullum, Geoffrey K., Scholz, Barbara C. (2002). Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments.
  3. The Linguistic Review 19. 9-50.
  4. FeralChildren.com | Language acquisition in feral children. (n.d.). FeralChildren.com | Feral children: isolated, confined, wild and wolf children. Retrieved December 23, 2009, from http://www.feralchildren.com/en/language.php
  5. biological foundations of language p.180
  6. Jurafsky, D., & Martin, J. H. (2000). Introduction. Speech and Language Processing An Introduction to Natural Language Processing, Computational Linguistics, and Speech Recognition (Second Edition ed., pp. 1-18). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458: Pearson, Prentice Hall.
  7. Kenzi & Mulika. (n.d.). MikeOram. Retrieved December 23, 2009, from
  8. http://www.mikeoram.co.uk/psychology/kenzi/index.html
  9. Chomsky Noam (1959). A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior Language, 35: 26-58.
  10. Pinker, Steven (1994). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: Harper Collins.
  11. Wright, S. H. (2006, May 17). Media Lab project explores language acquisition. TechTalk, pp. 4.
  12. Boulton, D. (n.d.). Neuroscience: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain - Terrence Deacon.
  13. The History and Science of the Code and What is at Stake and Involved in Learning to Read It.. Retrieved December 23, 2009, from http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/deacon.htm#AcquiringLanguage
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