Healthy Living

Understanding Sound Patterns In Language Is Part Of Human Instinct, According To Researchers

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Scientists have discovered that we are born with a degree of understanding of human languages and how they should sound. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Language is one of the most impressive characteristics of mankind. It sets us apart from any other creature on the planet. Animals have methods of communication: Everyone is familiar with bird songs or the iconic wolf’s howl at the full moon. Even dolphins are known to have intricate methods of communication using underwater clicks. Still, none of these are quite as complex, unique, and diversified as human language. Regardless of the multitude of languages that are spread throughout the globe, there is still something about their sound which makes them uniquely human. There are phonetic combinations that frequently reappear, even in languages that have been mostly isolated, such as those of the indigenous people in South America. Scientists have recently answered the fundamental question of why languages, words, and sound combinations all have a distinct "human" sound to them. Why then are we able to correctly distinguish what is a word and what is nonsense, even in language we have never heard before? According to researchers at Northeastern University, the sound patterns of human languages are the product of inborn biological instinct.

A team of researchers set out to discover if humans were able to distinguish words and non-words from foreign language because they were used to speaking languages and had already learned how one should sound, or if this universal skill was part of basic human instinct. Past studies had already proven that babies begin to learn language while in the womb, but the question still remained: Exactly how much knowledge of languages are we born knowing without picking up from our environment?

Using an infrared spectroscopy, a silent and noninvasive technique that tells us how the oxygenation of the brain cortex changes in time, the researchers looked at the brains of new born Italian babies as they listened to good and bad word candidates. These were made up of common phonetic combinations such as "blif" versus rarer combinations like "lbif." According to the press release, results showed time and again that the newborns reacted differently to good and bad word candidates, showing that they understood there was a difference. These results are similar to how adults would react. The only difference is that newborn infants have not learned any words yet. They can’t even babble. Still though, these young babies have the sense of how a word should sound. These results show that we are born with basic, fundamental knowledge about the sound pattern of human languages.

There have been previous theories that have tried to link language to a gene in human DNA. Noam Chomsky is the famed linguist who came up with the idea of Universal Grammar. According to his theory, both language and grammar are innate. The brains of children are born as a computer simply waiting to be programmed to the destined language, but already equipped with the necessary knowledge of universal language skills. This theory was further strengthened with the discovery of FOXP2. FOXP2 is a genetic mutation that creates deficits in language, and all those born with the mutation have serious difficulties with language. Although it is promising in proving Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar, there is no way to distinguish if those with the FOXP2 mutation are language impaired or simply have difficulty speaking.

This study may answer the question of why young children and some adults are able to learn languages with little direction. It seems that we are all little linguists, equipped with the ability to distinguish what is a word and what is not, regardless of the language.

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