This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 202
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

Speaking From Within: A Discussion on Our Innate Ability to Learn Languages

Cindy Zhan

For years since I moved to the United States after the age of nine, I've always been frustrated at the lack of improvement in my ability to speak English without a trace of foreign accent and my ability to write without any grammatical errors. It always seemed to me that learning languages is unlike learning anything else, I can logically understand the pronunciation of the a word or the rules of grammar, but for reasons unknown, I always found it hard to incorporate logical knowledge of language into the actual speaking and writing of English. I started to surf the web in attempt to find the reasons to why, even after spending more than half of my life in the U.S, I still cannot speak and write as well as people who were born or came here at a much younger age.

At first I though the answer would be something to the extend of finding a region of the brain that is specialized for the learning of languages and that region is more developed in people other than I, who are good at linguistics. However, it turned out that the answer entails more than specialized regions in the brain, while there are regions in the brain that are specific for processing languages, what I found more interesting is that there is much evidence that supports the selectivist theory, found by Noam Chomsky that the ability to learn language is innate. Here innate means that ¡°the language template is pre-organized in the neuronal structure of the brain, so that the fact of being an integral part of a given environment selects the borders of each individual neuronal structure without affecting its fine organization, which pre-exists.¡± (1) In this paper, I wish to point out evidence that supports this theory of the innateness of language, and to exam how the language template develops. In conclusion, I wish to gain a better understand of my own language learning process in light of these new findings.

One evidence that points to the innateness of language is the accuracy and speed at which humans process language and the accelerating rate at which children acquire language. ¡°¡­ the average speaker produces approximately 150 words per minute, each word chosen from somewhere between 20000 and 40000 alternatives, at error rates below .1%. The average child is already well on her way toward that remarkable level of performance by 5 years of age, with a vocabulary of more than 6000 words and productive control over almost every aspect of sound and grammar in her language.¡±(2)Therefore, unlike learning of other things, which depends on the firing of neuron to make connections, the connections for the learning of language already exist before humans are expose to language through their environments, which accounts for the accuracy of processing language and the speed of acquisition of language.

One particular supporter of the selectivist theory, Bob Hadley, who is a professor of computer science at SFU, incorporated the Chomskian view that an innate structure of language exist in our brains and constructed a model of language learning systems which contains explicit, conceptual structures in the brain that are specifically there to enable language learning.(3) His system is a clear improvement upon the model made by connectionist- researchers who use computerized neural networks (computer programs that try to replicate the connections between neurons in a human brain.) The neuron networks learn languages without pre existent structures, it is based on the believe that ¡°language is built up constantly from a continuous interaction with a well-structured environment.¡±(1)

The model designed by Hadley works more like the natural language learning system in humans in that, unlike the connectionist models, which uses the same word in the one grammatical context, Hadley¡¯s model demonstrates strong semantic systematicity-the ability to generalize use of the same word in many different grammatical roles which is unique to humans. Take the noun ¡°cat¡± for example, the connectionist model can only recognize cat as a subject as in ¡°the cat chases the mice.¡± However, if ¡°cat¡± is used as an object as in ¡° I am looking for the cat.¡± The connectionist model would fail to recognize the word where as Hadley¡¯s model would not. This computer model experiment demonstrates more concretely the validity of the selectivist theory.

So how does the innateness of language account for my lack of improved proficiency in English? It turned out that language learning has a critical period. During the acquisition of language, the brain goes through ¡°pruning¡± of unnecessary connections as language development takes place. In other words, the neuronal synaptic connections are not created, or built as we learn language: they pre-exist: unnecessary ones merely decay as language learning takes place.(1) As a result of this pruning period, the ability to learn language fluently decreases with age. Young children deprived of languages acquire language fully if learning takes place before puberty. If after puberty, they are very inept at language.(4) ¡°Among Chinese and Korean children who have immigrated to the United States there is a linear relationship until puberty between the age of arrival and proficiency in English.¡±(1)

Alas, this is the answer to my question. Because the ability to learn language is innate and it has a critical development period before the puberty age, when I arrived at the United States, perhaps the innate structure in my brain had already begun its regression in acquiring languages. The language template within my brain had been filled with the Chinese language, it had already gone through most of the ¡°pruning¡±, meaning it had strengthened the neuronal connection needed for the Chinese language and gotten rid of the ones that is not needed for learning other languages. The quote in the previous chapter about the age of arrival and proficiency in language, support my speculation about the difficulties in attaining language proficiency after a certain age. Because I arrived just a little bit before pre teenage years, while there is still room to learn another language, the ability to learn language had already begins its stage of decline and therefore, acquisition and proficiency of the English Language does not come easily for me compared to immigrant children who came to this country earlier than I.

Of course knowing that the structures for learning languages pre-exist within our brain is only the first step to understanding how our brain processes languages. While I gained a basic understanding of the innateness of the ability to learn language and how it accounts for, to some degree, my struggles in achieving proficiency of English, there is still a lot to learn about the structures of the language-learning template. From researching the broad topic of brain and language, I also learned about the lateralization and localization of language on the brain. Even though it would take another web paper to elaborate on these two topics, writing the this web paper is a good start because while there is a lot to learn about how the brain functions specifically in response to language, knowing that the innate structure exist for the acquisition of language is a start for understanding how language is processed in our brains.


(1)The Biological Foundations of Languages, An extensive site about neurobiology of Language

(2)On the Nature and Nurture of Language,A detailed research paper

(3)Is Language Innate or Learned ,An artical about language learning computer models

(4)Higher Cortical Function-Language,An introduction to Language and the brain

| Forums | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:08 CDT