Culbertson reasoned that if the participants had a built-in bias for recognizing where the modifiers belonged, they would find it very difficult to learn a language that didn't follow the rules. In the experiment, the language for that distant planet fell into that category, willy-nilly mixing the arrangement of the modifiers. As expected, the participants found that an extremely challenging language.
But how can they be sure that since the participants all spoke English, it was their native tongue, not an innate bias, that made ET's language so hard?
Because, Culbertson said, they found it just as easy to learn new phrases in languages that do not conform to the English pattern (of modifier before noun,) but they had a terrible time with the fourth category, the inconsistent mixing of modifiers which is so rare on Earth.
The research is not likely to end the argument among linguists, and it needs to be replicated by others before it can have much impact. Culbertson concedes it's inconvenient that scientists have to try to pry into the unborn mind by studying adults, but it's pretty difficult to conduct this kind of research with infants.
So she's moving on to the next level in a new assignment as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester. She is conducting the same experiments with children, 5 to 7 years old.
Maybe they can tell us if Plato had it right. And maybe not.