New book reintegrates the science of language

By: Linda B. Glaser,  Arts & Sciences Communications
April 4, 2016

Is language innate? How did we get language? While researchers continue to debate, a new book offers a revolutionary, unifying framework for understanding the processing, acquisition and evolution of language. The book, “Creating Language: Integrating Evolution, Acquisition, and Processing” by Cornell Professor of Psychology Morten H. Christiansen and Nick Chater (University of Warwick, UK), integrates recent findings across numerous disciplines, including psychology, linguistics, computer science, anthropology, cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience.

Christiansen and Chater’s integrative approach offers a way of understanding language across multiple timescales: the timescale of thousands of years, over which languages themselves evolve; the timescale of years, over which children acquire the language of their community; and the timescale of seconds, in which particular utterances are spoken and understood.

“There’s been a trend toward separating out questions relating to the evolution, acquisition, and processing of language from one another, losing sight of the overall picture,” explains Christiansen. “You need to look at these different aspects of language in combination.”

Because children learn language quickly and easily, many theorists have believed this means there are specialized brain mechanisms specific to language acquisition. This has led them to ask how the brain has changed to accommodate language. Christiansen and Chater flip the question around, asking instead, “why is language so well suited to being learned by the brain?” Taking a cultural evolution approach, they conclude that language is easy for us to learn and use because language, like a living organism, has evolved in a symbiotic relationship with humans. Language has adapted to what our brains can do, rather than the other way around.

At first blush it might seem that language changes too slowly to affect language acquisition but, as the book details, the language we use changes all the time – even the way we sound changes over time. “A beautiful study was done that demonstrates how language keeps on changing, even in ourselves,” says Christiansen. “The Queen of England gives a speech every Christmas, which she’s done for more than 60 years. Three Australian speech scientists analyzed the vowels she produced and found that the British Queen no longer speaks the Queen’s English of the 1950s: her vowels have changed.” This means that language learning never ends but continuous throughout life.

Given such life-long language learning, say the authors, individual variations in exposure to language contribute to differences in the processing of language and the difficulties people have with certain linguistic constructions. Christiansen notes that even among the otherwise well-spoken Cornell students there are considerable differences in their language processing skills: by using experience-based processing “short-cuts, some are faster and more accurate in their comprehension than others. However, sometimes these short-cuts or biases can lead people astray. He offers as an example a graduate student he instructed to write down a spoken phrase, “the man bit the dog.” The student repeatedly scribed it as “the dog bit the man,” because the bias of what he expected to hear was so strong. 

The book places individual differences in linguistic abilities in an evolutionary context. “We view language as piggy-backing on older pre-linguistic abilities,” says Christiansen. “Results from my lab indicate that there’s likely to be some biological differences in how people are able to process sequences of information and ‘chunk’ that information together into larger units. These differences interact with variation in linguistic experience and give rise to individual differences in language processing. The importance of experience is further underscored by the many studies showing that there’s a strong correlation between the number and variety of words that children hear and their language abilities. It can make a huge difference.” 

“Creating Language” is the culmination of nearly two decades of work and is exhaustively researched, with more than a thousand references. Although the book is a scholarly work, the goal of the authors is for it to be accessible to the general public. To that end, Christiansen solicited feedback from his undergraduate and graduate students, which he says helped enormously in making the text accessible.

In addition to “Creating Language,” Christiansen has written more than 170 scientific papers and co-edited volumes on connectionist psycholinguistics, language evolution, language universals, and cultural evolution. Apart from being a Professor of Psychology at Cornell, he serves as co-director of Cornell’s Cognitive Science Program and is also Senior Scientist at the Haskins Labs, Professor of Child Language at the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University, and Professor in the Department of Language and Communication at the University of Southern Denmark. 

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts & Sciences

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