Good Grammar in All of Us


Feb. 22, 2006 — -- Valentine's Day is just behind us, and you may know, as that old song goes, that your baby done you wrong.

Lousy grammar, to be sure, but here's the surprise. Your brain may be hardwired to know bad grammar too.

Researchers at the University of Rochester have found that certain hallmarks of grammar that are present in all languages occur naturally, even among deaf people who create their own languages without any formal training and no previous knowledge of how people go about using words in a way that makes sense to others.

The finding dovetails with other research that shows we are instinctively capable of understanding the fundamentals of geometry, and even babies have a sense of numbers. It all suggests we have a birthright that should guarantee our ability to cope with a world in which we are constantly confronted with annoying things like unbalanced checkbooks and, of all things, poor grammar.

Elissa L. Newport, professor of brain and cognitive sciences and linguistics at the University of Rochester, and Marie Coppola, a postdoctoral student at the University of Chicago, reached their somewhat surprising conclusion about grammar after spending eight years studying three Nicaraguan boys who were born deaf and had no formal education and absolutely no exposure to language, other than that which they created themselves.

They had not even been exposed to signing, the gestural-based form of communication used by deaf people. So like other children around the world, they developed their own sign language, or home-sign system.

During the research, the boys were shown a total of 66 short videos consisting of single actions, such as a woman walking or a man smelling flowers. Then, using their own signing language, the boys described what they had seen.

Significantly, all three boys consistently used the grammatical construction of "subject" the same way it is used in languages around the world.

Newport, whose previous research showed that the learning curve for language is very sharp and begins very early in life, says the notion of "subject" is considered a hallmark of grammatical systems because it is used the same way in all languages. That has long puzzled linguists, but the Rochester research suggests one reason why that may be the case.

Our brains seem hardwired for grammar, which is a bit surprising because we so often get it wrong.

Although the idea of "subject" as a grammatical construction may seem simple, it's really very complex and difficult to define, Newport says. Contrary to what we were taught in grammar school, the subject of a sentence is not always the person, place or thing that performs the action in the sentence. Sometimes, it's acted upon.

The researchers cite the example of "John opened the door," in which the subject, John, is clearly the person carrying out the action. But in the sentence "John got hit," John is acted upon. In both sentences, however, John is the subject.

The three Nicaraguan boys apparently understood that, although they had never been instructed in grammar.

"Despite having to essentially design their own languages without influence from any other speakers or signers of an established language, the home signers created a complex grammatical component and used it in the same way highly evolved languages do," the researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In other words, they used the "subject" in a consistent, grammatically correct way.

"The notion of 'subject' does not appear to require either linguistic input or a lengthy history within a language to develop," Newport says. "We're starting to see that the grammatical concept of 'subject' is part of the bedrock on which languages form."

That would suggest, as other research also indicates, that we are born with the ability to develop certain skills.

Researchers Kerry Jordan and Elizabeth Brannon of Duke University have shown that infants seem to have an innate sense of "two-ness and three-ness," or a sense of abstract numerical concepts. The cognitive neuroscientists wanted to see if babies could match the number of sounds, like the voices of three people, with the number of sources.

So they played recordings of human voices while allowing 7-month-old babies to watch two video screens. When the babies heard two voices, the infants stared longer at the screen showing two humans than the screen showing three, and vice versa.

According to the researchers, who also report their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, even babies understand numbers. At least a little.

All of this would suggest that humans are endowed with some rather remarkable abilities. But before we get carried away with our uniqueness, it's worth noting that the Duke scientists did the same experiment earlier with monkeys. And they got the same result.

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