Language universals at birth

The evolution of human languages is driven both by primitive biases present in the human sensorimotor systems and by cultural transmission among speakers. However, whether the design of the language faculty is further shaped by linguistic biological biases remains controversial. To address this question, we used near-infrared spectroscopy to examine whether the brain activity of neonates is sensitive to a putatively universal phonological constraint. Across languages, syllables like blif are preferred to both lbif and bdif. Newborn infants (2-5 d old) listening to these three types of syllables displayed distinct hemodynamic responses in temporal-perisylvian areas of their left hemisphere. Moreover, the oxyhemoglobin concentration changes elicited by a syllable type mirrored both the degree of its preference across languages and behavioral linguistic preferences documented experimentally in adulthood. These findings suggest that humans possess early, experience-independent, linguistic biases concerning syllable structure that shape language perception and acquisition.

PDF – PNAS-2014-Gmez-5837-41



The concept of language universals at birth refers to the idea that humans are born with innate cognitive structures or mechanisms that predispose them to acquire language in a certain way. These language universals are thought to be present across all human cultures and languages, influencing the process of language acquisition from infancy.

Some key aspects of language universals at birth include:

1. **Universal Grammar**: The theory of Universal Grammar, proposed by linguist Noam Chomsky, suggests that all humans are born with an innate understanding of the basic principles underlying language structure. According to this theory, there are universal linguistic rules or principles that are hard-wired into the human brain, providing a framework for language learning.

2. **Language Acquisition Device (LAD)**: Chomsky also proposed the existence of a Language Acquisition Device (LAD), a hypothetical cognitive mechanism or module in the human brain that facilitates the rapid and effortless acquisition of language during early childhood. The LAD is believed to contain the innate knowledge and abilities necessary for language learning, allowing children to extract linguistic patterns and rules from the input they receive from their environment.

3. **Critical Period Hypothesis**: Research has shown that there is a critical period during early childhood, typically before the age of puberty, during which language acquisition occurs most easily and efficiently. This supports the idea that there may be innate biological factors that influence the timing and trajectory of language development.

4. **Language Universals**: Linguists have identified certain linguistic features and patterns that appear to be universal across human languages, such as the distinction between nouns and verbs, the use of word order to convey grammatical relationships, and the presence of phonological constraints on speech sounds. These language universals suggest that there may be underlying cognitive principles or constraints that shape the structure and organization of language.

While the concept of language universals at birth remains a topic of debate and ongoing research in the field of linguistics and cognitive science, evidence from developmental psychology, neuroscience, and cross-linguistic studies provides support for the idea that humans are biologically predisposed to acquire language and that certain aspects of language structure may be universal across cultures and languages.

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