Artificial-language video game provides evidence for Chomsky’s ‘universal grammar’ hypothesis

May 16, 2011

A study where subjects play a video game to learn an artificial language called “Verblog” has shown that humans possess innate intuitions of grammatical structure, Jennifer Culbertson, a doctoral student in Johns Hopkins’ Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, has discovered.

Study participants had little difficulty learning artificial languages that follow syntactic rules similar to existing human languages, but found it challenging to learn artificial languages violating those rules. For example, there are human languages where numerals come after nouns, and others where adjectives come before nouns, but no language with both those rules. Though the participants did not consciously know this, they found it more difficult to learn artificial languages that violate human-universal syntactic norms.

“Language is something that sets us apart from other species, and if we understand how children are able to quickly and efficiently learn language, despite its daunting complexity, then we will have gained fundamental knowledge about this unique faculty,” Culbertson said. “What this study suggests is that the problem of acquisition is made simpler by the fact that learners already know some important things about human languages — in this case, that certain words orders are likely to occur and others are not.”