New Theory about Brain's Mastery of Language

USA TODAY, December 1997 | Go to article overview

New Theory about Brain's Mastery of Language


Even though the world's languages may sound drastically different from one another, scientists are proposing a new theory that human brains may be wired with a sort of universal language program. Such a concept could help to explain how infants are able to pick up the complex and subtle patterns of their native tongues so quickly.

The idea, known as "optimality theory," could be used to learn more about the mysteries surrounding how the brain so readily understands the grammatical complexities of language. If the brain already contained a basic underlying knowledge, learning the grammar of a specific language might require just a kind of fine-tuning mechanism. Optimality theory was conceived by Paul Smolensky, professor of cognitive science, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md., and Alan Prince, a linguist and cognitive scientist at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.

"Previous ideas have said that grammar is just a bunch of rules that you have to follow, and that different languages have different rules," notes Smolensky. "What we are saying is that different languages don't have different rules. They actually don't have rules. What they have are precise notions for what makes a sentence good or bad, and they all have the same notions." Those notions have different relative importance in different languages, though. As a result, distinct sequences of sounds are stressed in specific languages.

"The idea is that sentences in Italian and English look very different, but, in fact, underlying that apparent difference are the same criteria in all languages for what makes a good sentence," Smolensky explains. …

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