Linguistics and English Language

Language can’t be hard wired in the brain

New evidence suggests that language ability may not be “hard wired”.

Published on Mon, Apr 18th 2016, 11:04

Photograph of Professor Simon Kirby

New evidence suggests that language ability may not be "hard wired" in the brain, but more dependent on culture than previously believed.

New research led by Dr Kenny Smith (pictured right) and Prof Simon Kirby suggests that theories of what is known as "linguistic nativism" may need to be rethought.

Since much of our behaviour is down to the culture we live in, this study changes our perspective on human nature. In particular, the strong nativism proposed by some theories of language simply can't evolve

Professor Simon Kirby

The research team, which included former PPLS PhD student Dr Bill Thompson, modelled interactions between biological and cultural evolution to examine linguistic nativism, the hypothesis that our biology constrains the form language can take, and found that cultural evolution significantly shapes language, thus effectively blocking many of the effects of biological evolution.

To reach their conclusions, they built a series of computational models which included all the things needed to simulate the effects of biological evolution on language: languages that had different linguistic features, the ability to learn a language from others, and genes which may affect language learning.

Dr Kenny Smith said "There's a widespread idea that humans are born knowing important stuff about how the world works, and language has been taken by some people as a clear case where innate knowledge might be necessary and a great advantage. But we have found that models of Darwinian evolution can't produce this kind of innate knowledge for language and probably not for other socially-learned systems of behaviour".

This research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA.

Further information

Prof Simon Kirby

Dr Kenny Smith