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Study shows humans and apes learn language differently

Posted April 3, 2013
Credit: Herb Terrace, Nim Project director

Credit: Herb Terrace, Nim Project director

How do children learn language? Many linguists believe that the stages that a child goes through when learning language mirror the stages of language development in primate evolution. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Charles Yang of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that if this is true, then small children and non-human primates would use language the same way. He then uses statistical analysis to prove that this is not the case. The language of small children uses grammar, while language in non-human primates relies on imitation.

Yang examines two hypotheses about language development in children. One of these says that children learn how to put words together by imitating the word combinations of adults. The other states that children learn to combine words by following grammatical rules.

Linguists who support the idea that children are parroting refer to the fact that children appear to combine the same words in the same ways. For example, an English speaker can put either the determiner “a” or the determiner “the” in front of a singular noun. “A door” and “the door” are both grammatically correct, as are “a cat” and “the cat.” However, with most singular nouns, children tend to use either “a” or “the” but not both. This suggests that children are mimicking strings of words without understanding grammatical rules about how to combine the words.

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