Researchers traced word rules across more than 3,000 languages.
What’s the News: Noam Chomsky, look out: If language has any universal grammar, it’s hiding really well, conclude the authors of a recent Nature study. The idea that all human languages share some underlying structure, regardless of where or when they evolved, an influential idea that nonetheless has drawn some controversy since Chomsky popularized it in the 1950s. One part of natural-grammar theory is the idea that certain word order rules (whether the verb or the noun goes first and whether a preposition goes before or after a noun, for example) will always associate together, regardless of which language they occur in.
But when cognitive scientists and a biologist teamed up to see whether there were shared patterns in word order across four large language families, they found almost none. A common cultural background, they found, was the best predictor for how a language orders words.
Speakers of two languages may have extra defenses against the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease—that’s according to new research announced this weekend at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC. Psychologist Ellen Bialystok and her team studied more than 200 Alzheimer’s patients with about the same level of mental acumen, about half of whom were bilingual and half of whom were monolingual. The result: On average, the speakers of multiple languages had been diagnosed four years later in their lives. Says Bialystok:
“Being bilingual has certain cognitive benefits and boosts the performance of the brain, especially one of the most important areas known as the executive control system. We know that this system deteriorates with age but we have found that at every stage of life it functions better in bilinguals. They perform at a higher level. It won’t stop them getting Alzheimer’s disease, but they can cope with the disease for longer.” [The Guardian]
To get a look at that system, the team took CT scans of the patients’ brain. That’s when they found something curious: The physical ravages of Alzheimer’s were actually more advanced in the brains of bilinguals, despite the fact that they were mentally more protected.
How we talk about numbers plays a big role in how we think about numbers—that much is clear. But this week, new research makes the case that language is not a key part of thinking about numbers, but the key part, overriding other influences like cultural ones.
The study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by psychologist Elizabet Spaepen focuses on a group of deaf Nicaraguans called the homesigners, who invented their own form of sign language—a form that lacks a numerical vocabulary.
That’s a common trait in many hunter-gatherer societies, where the numbering system is often one-two-three-many. For example, the Munduruku Amazonian people in rural Brazil don’t have any words for exact numbers larger than five. Their neighbors, the Piraha, no exact number words at all. [USA Today]
There are two things that make the homesigners extremely scientifically interesting. One is the fact that they spontaneously invented this language when brought together at a home for the deaf in the 1970s. And the other—the one that’s important for this study—is that they’re not an isolated tribe in which nobody uses numbers. They live within Nicaragua, surrounding by a Spanish-speaking society that’s as number-dependent as any other country. Thus, Spaepen’s team reasoned, if the homesigners struggle to conceptualize larger numbers, the reason would have to be linguistic and not cultural.
The 1970s: a time for Reggie Jackson, the first go-round of John Travolta, and adopting a chimpanzee to settle a scientific dispute.
The new film Project Nim by director James Marsh, the documentarian behind the acclaimed Man On Wire, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this week. Marsh tells the tale of a chimp that was taken from its mother and raised in a human family just like a human baby; the experimenters were attempting to show that language is not unique to our species.
In Project Nim [Marsh] looks at a project dreamed up by Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace and carried out on Nim Chimpsky, a chimp named for famed linguist Noam Chomsky, who has argued language is uniquely human. Alternating between previously unpublished footage and interviews with participants in the experiment, the film shows how Nim initially connects with his family before his animal nature gradually takes over. [AFP]
Where a previous study had taught a chimp named Washoe symbols in American Sign Language, Terrace sought to go further with Nim. The chimp lived with the LaFarge family of New York, and for four years Terrace’s team tried to teach Nim to respond using a series of signs to make a sentence. (Nim’s Wikipedia article lists all the “phrases” he put together.)
Humanity’s legacy of millions upon millions of books represents an unparalleled reservoir of data, precisely detailing the changes in language and culture over the centuries. Now, if only a search engine giant were digitizing that history…
Oh, right. Google has been doing just that, and now scientists are beginning to tap that treasure trove of data.
Together with over 40 university libraries, the internet titan has thus far scanned over 15 million books, creating a massive electronic library that represents 12% of all the books ever published. All the while, a team from Harvard University, led by Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden have been analysing the flood of data.
Their first report is available today. Although it barely scratches the surface, it’s already a tantalising glimpse into the power of the Google Books corpus. It’s a record of human culture, spanning six centuries and seven languages. It shows vocabularies expanding and grammar evolving. It contains stories about our adoption of technology, our quest for fame, and our battle for equality. And it hides the traces of tragedy, including traces of political suppression, records of past plagues, and a fading connection with our own history.
Do yourself a favor and check out the rest of Ed’s extensive post—including fascinating examples like the “half-life” of any given year being mentioned in literature—over at Not Exactly Rocket Science. And try out Google’s search to see the prevalence of any phrases or phrases over the years.
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Image: Wikimedia Commons (New York Public Library)
According to one group of scientists, figuring out the answer required only a pair of high-tech gloves and a trained craftsman who could make both simple stone knives and more complicated hand axes. The craftsman wore gloves studded with electronic sensors that tracked his his hand movements. Lead researcher Aldo Faisal of Imperial College London found that simple and complex tools required the same amount of dexterity to produce.
“From these results, dexterity can be ruled out, and we can infer it has something to do with the complexity of the task,” says Faisal. Axes are made in several stages, which requires switching between tasks, suggesting that a higher level of complexity is required in the brain. [New Scientist]
Autism researchers already knew that a variant of gene called CNTNAP2 that appears in about one-third of people is associated with higher risk for developing the condition. A study this week out in Science Translational Medicine puts that genetic marker together with what it appears to do in the brain: cause too many connections inside the frontal lobe of the brain, but too few from there to other brain regions. That could be a key clue in unraveling the learning and language difficulties that frequently appear in autism spectrum disorders.
The gene produces a protein called CASPR1 and is active during brain development — mostly during frontal-lobe development. “During early development, it is localized to parts of brain that are ‘more evolved’ — areas where learning and language happen, the frontal lobes where really complex thinking takes place,” says Ashlee Scott-van Zeeland, a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and lead author of the study. “[It is] thought to help structure the brain.” [TIME]
To study its effects, Scott-Van Zeeland and company studied 32 kids between 11 and 13 in age. Some were autistic, some not, and many of the non-autistic kids carried the CNTNAP2 gene variant. The scientists examined the children’s brains through fMRI while the kids played a game intended to stimulate brain regions that the gene affects.
An investigation of Marc Hauser, a Harvard University psychology professor who studies primate behavior and animal cognition, came to a head on Friday with a letter from Harvard’s dean confirming eight instances of scientific misconduct.
The exact offenses are still unclear, but three papers have received or are receiving modifications. The papers include a 2002 Cognition article (retracted), a 2007 article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B (received an addendum), and a 2007 article in Science.
From Harvard Dean Michael Smith’s letter:
[T]he investigating committee found problems with respect to the three publications mentioned previously, and five other studies that either did not result in publications or where the problems were corrected prior to publication. While different issues were detected for the studies reviewed, overall, the experiments reported were designed and conducted, but there were problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results. [Chronicle of Higher Education]
While Harvard has not been forthcoming with the details, one former research assistant provided the Chronicle of Higher Education with email exchanges between research assistants and Hauser, related to particular problems interpreting results from primate study.