Using languages invented in a lab to reveal the brain’s linguistic biases
From a scientific perspective, the problem with languages is the cultures that help create them. There are over 7,000 languages spoken on Earth today, but they’re all so closely tied to cultural learning that it’s hard for researchers to be sure which aspects of language come from history, and which come our brains. To study how human brain structure influences language, researchers needed a language that was somehow free of the baggage that comes from being spoken, read and shared for thousands of years. Since such a language obviously wasn’t in use anywhere around the world, the only solution was to make up some new ones for the lab.
The hypothesis was that while human languages have been shaped and steered by events in the outside world, they were probably also shaped by the structure and functionality of our brains as well. These traits, called linguistic universals, would then be the foundation for all human language, even if they were modified or dressed up later on. If people could be tested using new languages that were designed to be free of these modifications, the underlying mental mechanisms that come straight from our gray matter would hopefully be revealed.
Keeping associated words close together
To test how brains handle a culture-free language, English speakers without other linguistic experience were taught two synthetic languages over the course of three days. The languages were different from both English and each other, making it easier to compare how people worked with these mental frameworks. Once proficient at these new ways of speaking, test participants were asked to explain a task in the synthetic languages, forcing their brains to make use of the new words and rules. The first pattern to emerge was related to word order, or more specifically, word dependencies.
Word dependency is when one word is partnered with another to complete an idea. For example, a sentence with the “29” doesn’t tell you nearly as much as “November 29.” All languages, including the two synthetic languages in this study, use this concept, but this experiment showed that our brains show a bias towards shorter dependencies. When speaking in either synthetic language, test participants regularly tried to pair dependent terms as closely in a sentence as possible, rather than allow them to drift apart through the sentence.
Aiming for cognitive efficiency
This may seem intuitive because we’re so used to it, but that’s probably the result of how much our brains prefer that grammatical construction. Researchers suspect that by pairing dependent words together as much as possible, our brains may be reducing the cognitive load to parse the sentence’s meaning. When the dependent terms are joined together, they can share the same space in our memory, vs. taking up multiple “slots” in what’s a fairly limited mental resource. This word order isn’t universal among the 7,000+ languages humans speak today, but it’s more common than it should be if it were strictly coincidental, indicating that the basis for many linguistic rules may stem from our brains’ cognitive abilities.
Source: Why do we see similarities across languages? Human brain may be responsible, Medical Xpress