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New research grant awarded on innate language learning biases

A major new grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) will enable PPLS researchers to investigate the nature of our linguistic knowledge

A major debate in the study of languages is whether innate biases in the way humans think allow us to learn particular types of languages more easily than others, or whether the different patterns and structures of language arise as the random result of communication, human behaviour and interaction throughout history. Languages differ from one another in all sorts of ways, for example whether they put adjectives before or after nouns. But some types of variation are more common than others: we find lots of languages (such as English) which use the word order 'three red houses', and many others (such as Thai) which use the order 'houses red three'. But some word orders, like 'red three houses' never seem to occur, despite being logically possible. Why is this?

With the help of this new funding, a team led by Dr Jennifer Culbertson (Chancellor's Fellow in Linguistics, based in PPLS) and Professor David Adger of Queen Mary, University of London, aim to shed light on whether potential cognitive ‘biases’ in human minds could account for why some word orders are more common than others.

The team will test how well people learn artificial languages of various types. The experiments will compare how well people learn artificial versions of English, Thai, Vietnamese and Kitharaka (a language of Kenya), which each exhibit different structural patterns, to determine how and to what effect word order influences the participants’ ability to master a language. If the behaviour with artificial languages follows the learning patterns we see across real languages - that is, some word orders are more easily learned and become more common than others - this will suggest that the way languages vary is not random, nor is it entirely a product of historical facts. Instead, there may be universal cognitive biases at play which mean the human mind is better equipped to learn languages with some word orders over others.

The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged.

Dr Jennifer Culbertson is a member of the Centre for Language Evolution at the University of Edinburgh.