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Frontiers
One Species: One Language The Universal Nature of Human Languages

July/August 1996

According to the book of Genesis, there was a time in human history when we all spoke one language.

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. (Genesis 11:1)

Their one language allowed the people to work together without hindrances. They began to build the Tower of Babel.

And the Lord said, "Behold, the people is one and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, so they may not understand one another's speech." So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:6-8)

Today, the people of the world use more than 6,000 different languages and innumerable dialects. The unity is gone. We no longer understand each other.

However, many linguists believe that we actually do speak one language. While words are important, they're just the beginning. To linguists, real language is grammar, the structure that every language is built on.

For the last thirty-five years linguists have been on a quest to define the universal qualities that make up every natural language. The quest has attracted researchers from neurobiology, psychology, computer science, anthropology, and philosophy.

At stake is not only a better understanding of languages, but, by extension, an explanation of how our brains work.

THE STRUCTURE OF UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR: A FLOOR PLAN

To understand what these researchers are looking for, it may be helpful to imagine all of the world's languages as a housing subdivision.

The houses all appear to be different. Builders used brick for one and wood for another. Over the years, owners have added porches and finished attics. But by looking past the brick and additions, you would see all of the houses started with the same floor plan.

For some linguists, that floor plan is called universal grammar--a term credited to MIT linguist Noam Chomsky who first championed the idea in the 1950s.

Linguists believe that universal grammar and its interaction with the rest of the brain is the design mechanism that allows children to become fluent in any language in the first few years of their lives.

"It's a remarkable thing," NSF's Linguistics Program Director, Paul Chapin, says with a touch of understatement.

It is, in fact, one of the attributes that makes us human. Like our opposable thumbs and upright stance, linguists are proving this language ability is something all humans have.

Psychologist Steven Pinker has had NSF funding to study this concept which he writes about in his popular book, The Language Instinct. "Grammar is a protocol that has to interconnect the ear, the mouth and the mind, three very different kinds of machines. It cannot be tailored to any one of them, but must have an abstract logic of its own."

The idea of abstract logic is not obvious when looking at a child, admits Pinker of MIT, but, he continues: "Some of the organization of grammar would have to be there from the start, part of the language-learning mechanism that allows children to make sense out of the noises they hear from the parents."

Understanding this language-learning ability may help us develop better education techniques for children and rehabilitation techniques for brain-damaged individuals. The studies also may help computer programmers who are working on electronic translators. But most of all, the information will help us understand ourselves.

STUDYING AN INVISIBLE STRUCTURE

While Pinker and others say that logically there must be a universal grammar, finding proof of such a structure is a different matter. Much as physicists will never actually see gravity but still study the force's effects on other objects, linguists must use an indirect approach in their research.

These cognitive scientists look for places where the instinct of language still shows, places untouched by the more complicated language of the everyday world.

They compare languages, looking for universal rules. They study children learning languages. And they look at language mistakes, and language aberrations in society--people who cannot or do not interact in casual conversation.

A GLIMPSE OF PURE LANGUAGE

Susan Goldin-Meadow "watches" language. In an NSF-funded project, the psychologist from the University of Chicago studied ten deaf children in Chicago and Philadelphia. The children were born to hearing parents and, due to the parent's convictions of the importance of oral language, did not learn sign language.

If language ability were something learned instead of instinctive, these children would have communicated with their parents by simply pointing or making "non-symbolic" gestures. But after many hours of watching video taped sessions, Goldin-Meadow concludes that they used a more sophisticated system.

The children, ages 14 months to four years, developed internally consistent sign languages. They could string together signs to form structured sentences. They communicated past, present and future events. And they used their language to comment on their own and others' actions.

"This shows that the deaf kids bring something to communication," she says. Through this study and others like it, the basics of universal grammar are confirmed. There are sentences, words, and morphemes (the smallest unit of language, such as the prefix "un" in "undo"). There are nouns and verbs, and there are subjects and objects. These are not just social constructions but something deeper, more firmly placed in our brains.

But Goldin-Meadow also suggests that while we have an instinct, language is not something that blossoms in isolation. Each child in the two-city study is the sole fluent user of his or her language. Because of this, the languages themselves remain rudimentary.

For Goldin-Meadow, who is continuing her study with children in Taiwan, the issue is no longer whether or not the structure exists. The question is what does it look like.

TRACING THE MISTAKES

Linguist Victoria Fromkin investigates both universal grammar and individual grammars by analyzing our "slips of the tongue." Fromkin is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-author of the much-used college text, An Introduction to Language. Her current interest is the information revealed in spontaneous speech of normal speakers and of brain damaged aphasic speakers.

Among other mis-spoken phrases, Fromkin collects spoonerisms, e.g., when "Dear Old Queen" comes out "Queer old Dean." The NSF-funded study provides insights into how our brains store words.

"We all have a dictionary in our heads," she explains. "I'm trying to get at the way our mental dictionary is organized."

She suggests that we store words in several ways. While they may be listed alphabetically, as in normal dictionaries, they are also stored by their sounds. This explains why we may mistakenly refer to Christine as Karen because they both begin with the sound "k."

Spoonerisms occur when our brains mix similar sounding words such as "dear" and "dean."

Other slips of the tongue show that words are also stored by their meanings-similar to the way a thesaurus is organized. For example, Fromkin says, a person might substitute two words, saying "I've got to pay her rent" when he really means "I've got to pay her alimony."

These speech errors, however, do have distinct limits. "One would never find the substitution of words totally dissimilar in both their sounds and their meanings," she says.

In addition, we never exchange nouns and verbs, Fromkin says--this shows that the structure of the sentences is maintained and the syntactic part of speech category of words is present in our universal, mental dictionaries.

FINDING STRUCTURAL JOINTS

Fromkin also investigates deviant speech of a different population--brain-damaged patients with aphasia. By examining their speech errors and learning how their utterances differ from that of normal speech, she investigates what parts of the brain are involved in normal speech processing, and therefore what functions are universal.

"When one looks at the aphasic speech across languages, we again have evidence in support of universal grammar," she says.

For example, patients who have lesions in their left temporal lobes often produce ungrammatical speech, saying, in English, "the dog chase the cat" instead of "the dog chases the cat." In other languages, the aphasic speech mistake is the same.

By combining her careful documentation of what people actually say with new technology that monitors brain functions (such as Functional Magnetic Resonant Imaging), Fromkin says scientists may have a method that will allow them to understand the relationship between the brain and the cognitive systems, including universal grammar and language.

SEEING THE FLOOR PLAN

As scientists sketch in the complex set of details that make up universal grammar, the level of human instinct emerges: We learn language because we must.

What's more, as we teach our children languages, it is useful to understand the starting point-there is an innate understanding of grammar that surpasses all of the diagramed sentences in elementary school books.

And, as Steve Pinker writes, understanding this system strips away some of the division among humans. Similar to biologists' ability to identify the unity within a genus by examining genes, linguists look beneath the rhythms and pronunciations of words, to see the similarity among languages. "Knowing about the ubiquity of complex language across individuals and cultures and the single mental design underlying them all, no speech seems foreign to me, even when I cannot understand a word."


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