Babies Are Born With Language

February 16, 1998

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Kids understand the smartest things even before they can say the words, according to a Cornell University psycholinguist. Her studies of American and Chinese children provide new compelling evidence that human babies are born to grasp the complex rules of word order and sentence structure in any language.

"Our studies show that both American and Taiwanese children as young as 3 years of age already possess a remarkable knowledge of language structure and syntax which is so complex and precise that it must challenge any known learning theory to account for its acquisition," says Barbara Lust, a developmental cognitive psycholinguist who has been heading studies on language acquisition in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell for more than 15 years.

She is presenting her research at a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Feb. 16 in Philadelphia.

"This ability of young children requires complex analysis and complex interpretations that were never taught; and it is difficult to imagine how they could be derived by unguided induction alone," Lust says. "This evidence supports the idea that humans are biologically programmed for a language faculty which guides language acquisition."

Lust and her collaborators conducted the English portion of the research by 86 American children between the ages of 3 and 7 to act out sentences such as, "Ernie touches the ground and Big Bird does, too," "Oscar bites his banana and Bert does, too," and "Big Bird scratches his arm and Ernie does, too." Such sentences includes information that is not given, such as, what does Ernie do in the last sentence ? Does he scratch Big Bird's arm or his own arm? Each sentence appears simple, but actually has four correct grammatical interpretations and five incorrect interpretations.

Lust says that consistently, children as young as 3 understand the ambiguity and different interpretations and have the knowledge to understand what is "not present" in the sentence . In addition, she says, they do not make the interpretations that aren't grammatically possible.

Lust, is co-director of Cornell's interdisciplinary Cognitive Studies Program and a professor of human development as well as of modern languages and linguistics.

Working with Chinese researchers, Lust also conducted matched studies with children whose parents spoke Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan. She found that these children also understood the complex grammar of their language in ways similar to the American children learning English.

Linguists are divided about supporting Noam Chomsky's theory of universal grammar -- the idea that children are born with an innate ability to develop language. But Lust's research provides new and compelling evidence that kids don't just copy-cat to learn their language but are born with the ability to "crack the codes" of their language through structural analysis. Specifically, they early can figure out their language's system of word meaning, sentence structure and sounds (semantics, syntax and phonology).

Lust believes this language faculty in young children is universal. "In previous work, we have compared the acquisition of more than 16 different languages, and in each language we have seen the power of the individual child's mind in creating the formal and highly complex grammatical system that linguists spend their careers puzzling over," Lust says. "Where professional linguists take years trying to figure out the rules and principles and parameters of language, children, infuriatingly, seem able to create the right theory for whatever language is around them -- English, French, Japanese or Tulu -- within just three years."

Lust works with graduate students, including native speakers of Chinese, Japanese , Spanish and Tulu in the Cornell Language Acquisition Laboratory. She and her students also collaborate with native speakers in more than a dozen other languages, including German, Dutch, Swedish, Korean, Arabic, Indonesian, Sinhalese, Inuktitut, and the South Asian languages Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam. Through her work, Lust and her students have developed a database of samples from 800 to 1,000 young children at different developmental periods across the languages they study, each translated and cross-referenced by developmental stage and linguistic structure.

On the English study, Lust collaborated with former graduate student Claire Foley, now a professor at Morehead University, former graduate student Isabella Barbier who now teaches in Australia, and researcher Katharina Boser, and with current graduate students, Zelmira Nuñez del Prado and Whitney Postman, as well as with undergraduates Julie Pactovis, Melanie Kaye, Beth Rothenstein and Dorothy Lowe. On the Chinese study, Lust worked with Chinese graduate student Fang Fang Guo and former graduate student Yu Chin Chien and Chi-Pang Chiang, a professor in Taiwan.

The research presented at the AAAS meeting was supported by in part by the National Science Foundation.


Cornell University

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