Is language learning an innate ability?

Anyone who has ever tried to learn a new language will understand the struggle of trying to memorise vocab, master a tricky grammatical rule, or to perfect your accent. It only adds to this frustration when we remember that young children, who can barely even tie their own shoelaces are doing all this seamlessly, with no effort or studying required.

We are born with a part of the brain specialised to recognise words and therefore to learn a language

How is it that children, at such a young age, can become masters of their first language? A new study by The Ohio State University, shows that we are born with a part of the brain specialised to recognise words and therefore to learn a language. This means humans are biologically programmed for language learning.

The Visual Word Form Area, or VWFA, is in the visual cortex of the brain. This whole area processes visual information, such as faces. In their study, the scientists disproved previous ideas, which suggested that the VWFA was nothing more than an area within the visual cortex. They showed that it is connected to other parts of the brain that are involved with language, and therefore is specialised to assist with language learning. 

Such a discovery has implications for the decades long debate among linguists surrounding how humans are capable of first language acquisition. By demonstrating that we are born with an area of the brain ‘prewired’ for language learning, we know that it is an innate, biological process, and not something we learn entirely from scratch. 

Before our improved understanding of the brain, thanks to new technologies, linguists theorised that languages were entirely acquired from our environment. This behaviourist approach, conceptualised by Frank Skinner, said that children imitate language they hear, and when praised for producing their first babbling phrases they can learn to speak ‘properly’ because grammatically incorrect sentences will be ignored rather than praised, and therefore will not be repeated. 

The behaviourist theory to language acquisition is disproved when we realise that children can produce an infinite number of sentences, even ones they have never heard before, so they are not simply imitating others. Despite this, babies who are never spoken to, will never learn to talk. Children learn language through interaction with their parents, and other adults or children. However, we cannot forget that there are also complex biological processes that undermine language learning. 

Chomsky’s emphasis on the fact we are born with language learning abilities was a basis for further research into how the brain learns language

In the 1950’s Noam Chomsky came up with a theory of ‘Universal Grammar’. Saying that children are born with an underlying knowledge of grammatical categories, such as verbs and nouns, this knowledge assists them when learning to put words together to form sentences. Chomsky’s emphasis on the fact we are born with language learning abilities was a basis for further research into how the brain learns language.

The newest research into the VWFA has shown it makes babies sensitive to recognising words, before they can even read, and that as we do learn to read it “will likely strengthen connections with specific aspects of the language circuit” leading to extremely specialised areas of the brain that allow children to learn language so seamlessly. 

There is a ‘critical period’ for acquisition, which ends around puberty

As we age we lose the ability to easily pick up a new language. Research has shown that there is a ‘critical period’ for acquisition, which ends around puberty, meaning that the brain functions that allow for first language acquisition stop functioning at this point. This is challenging for those of us trying to learn a second language after puberty, and is why we have to put in so many hours of study.

The discovery of the VWFA has exciting implications for linguists, understanding how we learn language, and which areas of the brain control it, mean we can better assist children who have difficulties learning language. This can lead to a better understanding of disorders such as dyslexia, which seems to be caused when areas of the brain that process language, such as the VWFA develop differently. 

While we may never fully understand the processes behind first language acquisition, put simply, it is down to a combination of biological functions, which facilitate cognitive processes, and allow the brain to pick up on grammatical patterns it hears. This means it can start understanding and mimicking our first language. 

Unfortunately, we can no longer harness this incredible function of the human brain to magically learn the native language of our next holiday destination. However, the language skills we acquired in childhood, which allow us to communicate in such a complex way, are what makes humans so special and distinguishes us from all other species.

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