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 language is acquired is really the holy grail in linguistics,” said lead author Jennifer Culbertson.
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.