Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning
by Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello
All of this leads ineluctably to the view that the notion of universal grammar is plain wrong. Of course, scientists never give up on their favorite theory, even in the face of contradictory evidence, until a reasonable alternative appears. Such an alternative, called usage-based linguistics, has now arrived. The theory, which takes a number of forms, proposes that grammatical structure is not innate. Instead grammar is the product of history (the processes that shape how languages are passed from one generation to the next) and human psychology (the set of social and cognitive capacities that allow generations to learn a language in the first place). More important, this theory proposes that language recruits brain systems that may not have evolved specifically for that purpose and so is a different idea to Chomsky’s single-gene mutation for recursion.
In the new usage-based approach (which includes ideas from functional linguistics, cognitive linguistics and construction grammar), children are not born with a universal, dedicated tool for learning grammar. Instead they inherit the mental equivalent of a Swiss Army knife: a set of general-purpose tools—such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions, and analogy making, with which children build grammatical categories and rules from the language they hear around them.
Broca and Wernicke are dead – it’s time to rewrite the neurobiology of language
by Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest
Yet the continued dominance of the Classic Model means that neuropsychology and neurology students are often learning outmoded ideas, without getting up to date with the latest findings in the area. Medics too are likely to struggle to account for language-related symptoms caused by brain damage or illness in areas outside of the Classic Model, but which are relevant to language function, such as the cerebellum.
Tremblay and Dick call for a “clean break” from the Classic Model and a new approach that rejects the “language centric” perspective of the past (that saw the language system as highly specialised and clearly defined), and that embraces a more distributed perspective that recognises how much of language function is overlaid on cognitive systems that originally evolved for other purposes.
Signing, Singing, Speaking: How Language Evolved
by Jon Hamilton, NPR
There’s no single module in our brain that produces language. Instead, language seems to come from lots of different circuits. And many of those circuits also exist in other species.
For example, some birds can imitate human speech. Some monkeys use specific calls to tell one another whether a predator is a leopard, a snake or an eagle. And dogs are very good at reading our gestures and tone of voice. Take all of those bits and you get “exactly the right ingredients for making language possible,” Elman says.
We are not the only species to develop speech impediments
by Moheb Costandi, BBC
Jarvis now thinks vocal learning is not an all-or-nothing function. Instead there is a continuum of skill – just as you would expect from something produced by evolution, and which therefore was assembled slowly, piece by piece.
The music of language: exploring grammar, prosody and rhythm perception in zebra finches and budgerigars
by Michelle Spierings, Institute of Biology Leiden
Language is a uniquely human trait. All animals have ways to communicate, but these systems do not bear the same complexity as human language. However, this does not mean that all aspects of human language are specifically human. By studying the language perception abilities of other species, we can discover which parts of language are shared. It are these parts that might have been at the roots of our language evolution. In this thesis I have studied language and music perception in two bird species, zebra finches and budgerigars. For example, zebra finches can perceive the prosodic (intonation) patterns of human language. The budgerigars can learn to discriminate between different abstract (grammar) patterns and generalize these patterns to new sounds. These and other results give us insight in the cognitive abilities that might have been at the very basis of the evolution of human language.
How Music and Language Mimicked Nature to Evolve Us
by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
Curiously, in the majority of our interaction with the world, we seem to mimic the sounds of events among solid objects. Solid-object events are comprised of hits, slides and rings, producing periodic vibrations. Every time we speak, we find the same three fundamental auditory constituents in speech: plosives (hit-sounds like t, d and p), fricatives (slide-sounds like f, v and sh), and sonorants (ring-sounds like a, u, w, r and y). Changizi demonstrates that solid-object events have distinct “grammar” recurring in speech patterns across different languages and time periods.
But it gets even more interesting with music, a phenomenon perceived as a quintessential human invention — Changizi draws on a wealth of evidence indicating that music is actually based on natural sounds and sound patterns dating back to the beginning of time. Bonus points for convincingly debunking Steven Pinker’s now-legendary proclamation that music is nothing more than “auditory cheesecake.”
Ultimately, Harnessed shows that both speech and music evolved in culture to be simulacra of nature, making our brains’ penchant for these skills appear intuitive.
The sounds of movement
by Bob Holmes, New Scientist
It is this subliminal processing that spoken language taps into, says Changizi. Most of the natural sounds our ancestors would have processed fall into one of three categories: things hitting one another, things sliding over one another, and things resonating after being struck. The three classes of phonemes found in speech – plosives such as p and k, fricatives such as sh and f, and sonorants such as r, m and the vowels – closely resemble these categories of natural sound.
The same nature-mimicry guides how phonemes are assembled into syllables, and syllables into words, as Changizi shows with many examples. This explains why we acquire language so easily: the subconscious auditory processing involved is no different to what our ancestors have done for millions of years.
The hold that music has on us can also be explained by this kind of mimicry – but where speech imitates the sounds of everyday objects, music mimics the sound of people moving, Changizi argues. Primitive humans would have needed to know four things about someone moving nearby: their distance, speed, intent and whether they are coming nearer or going away. They would have judged distance from loudness, speed from the rate of footfalls, intent from gait, and direction from subtle Doppler shifts. Voila: we have volume, tempo, rhythm and pitch, four of the main components of music.
Scientists recorded two dolphins ‘talking’ to each other
by Maria Gallucci, Mashable
While marine biologists have long understood that dolphins communicate within their pods, the new research, which was conducted on two captive dolphins, is the first to link isolated signals to particular dolphins. The findings reveal that dolphins can string together “sentences” using a handful of “words.”
“Essentially, this exchange of [pulses] resembles a conversation between two people,” Vyacheslav Ryabov, the study’s lead researcher, told Mashable.
“The dolphins took turns in producing ‘sentences’ and did not interrupt each other, which gives reason to believe that each of the dolphins listened to the other’s pulses before producing its own,” he said in an email.
“Whistled Languages” Reveal How the Brain Processes Information
by Julien Meyer, Scientific American
Earlier studies had shown that the left hemisphere is, in fact, the dominant language center for both tonal and atonal tongues as well as for nonvocalized click and sign languages. Güntürkün was interested in learning how much the right hemisphere—associated with the processing of melody and pitch—would also be recruited for a whistled language. He and his colleagues reported in 2015 in Current Biology that townspeople from Kuşköy, who were given simple hearing tests, used both hemispheres almost equally when listening to whistled syllables but mostly the left one when they heard vocalized spoken syllables.
Did Music Evolve Before Language?
by Hank Campbell, Science 2.0
Gottfriend Schlaug of Harvard Medical School does something a little more direct that may be circumstantial but is a powerful exclamation point for a ‘music came first’ argument. His work with patients who have suffered severe lesions on the left side of their brain showed that while they could not speak – no language skill as we might define it – they were able to sing phrases like “I am thirsty”, sometimes within two minutes of having the phrase mapped to a melody.
Chopin, Bach used human speech ‘cues’ to express emotion in music
by Andrew Baulcomb, Science Daily
“What we found was, I believe, new evidence that individual composers tend to use cues in their music paralleling the use of these cues in emotional speech.” For example, major key or “happy” pieces are higher and faster than minor key or “sad” pieces.
Theory: Music underlies language acquisition
by B.J. Almond, Rice University
Contrary to the prevailing theories that music and language are cognitively separate or that music is a byproduct of language, theorists at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) advocate that music underlies the ability to acquire language.
“Spoken language is a special type of music,” said Anthony Brandt, co-author of a theory paper published online this month in the journal Frontiers in Cognitive Auditory Neuroscience. “Language is typically viewed as fundamental to human intelligence, and music is often treated as being dependent on or derived from language. But from a developmental perspective, we argue that music comes first and language arises from music.”
How Brains See Music as Language
by Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic
What researchers found: The brains of jazz musicians who are engaged with other musicians in spontaneous improvisation show robust activation in the same brain areas traditionally associated with spoken language and syntax. In other words, improvisational jazz conversations “take root in the brain as a language,” Limb said.
“It makes perfect sense,” said Ken Schaphorst, chair of the Jazz Studies Department at the New England Conservatory in Boston. “I improvise with words all the time—like I am right now—and jazz improvisation is really identical in terms of the way it feels. Though it’s difficult to get to the point where you’re comfortable enough with music as a language where you can speak freely.”
Along with the limitations of musical ability, there’s another key difference between jazz conversation and spoken conversation that emerged in Limb’s experiment. During a spoken conversation, the brain is busy processing the structure and syntax of language, as well the semantics or meaning of the words. But Limb and his colleagues found that brain areas linked to meaning shut down during improvisational jazz interactions. In other words, this kind of music is syntactic but it’s not semantic.
“Music communication, we know it means something to the listener, but that meaning can’t really be described,” Limb said. “It doesn’t have propositional elements or specificity of meaning in the same way a word does. So a famous bit of music—Beethoven’s dun dun dun duuuun—we might hear that and think it means something but nobody could agree what it means.”