Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 17, 1997

On Research:
Theory May Explain
How Language Is

Emil Venere
News and Information

Even though the world's languages may sound drastically different from one another, scientists are proposing a new theory of how human brains may be wired with a sort of universal language program, a concept that 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," was explained in a paper published in last Friday's issue of the journal Science. It 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 of language, then learning the grammar of a specific language might only require a kind of fine-tuning mechanism.

"Previous ideas have said that grammar is just a bunch of rules that you have to follow, and that different languages have different rules," said Paul Smolensky, a professor of cognitive science. "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."

But those notions have different relative importance in different languages; as a result, distinct sequences of sounds are possible in specific languages.

Optimality theory was conceived by Smolensky and Alan Prince, a linguist and cognitive scientist at Rutgers University, who co-authored the Science paper with Smolensky.

"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 said. "In one language, certain criteria are more important than others, and they cause the grammatical sentences to look a certain way. In another language, different criteria are more important, causing the grammatical sentences to look quite different."

Those criteria are responsible for governing the sequence of sounds that make words and the proper sequence and grouping of words for good sentence structure, he said.

For example, "In Polish there are these amazing sequences of consonants that you don't find in other languages," Smolensky noted. "Then, there are certain sequences of sounds that you just don't find in any language because they make bad words."

Peter Jusczyk, an experimental psychologist who studies how infants perceive speech, said that, in English, words cannot start with the letter combination "kt."

"However, if you are a baby learning Polish, this is a perfectly good word: kto," Jusczyk said.

The theory might help to explain a fundamental mystery of language; its grammar and rhythm are complex, yet research has shown that babies are somehow able to begin learning these aspects of their particular language when they are only two months old, and possibly even as fetuses.

Perhaps their brains already possess a basic language understanding, knowledge of the criteria determining for all languages what makes for a good word or sentence.

"We can see rather precisely how that knowledge would allow a language learner to rapidly figure out what's going on in their language, which has always been a problem for linguistic theory," Smolensky said. "The knowledge that has been assumed to be necessary in order to be competent in a language was so hard to acquire that it was very difficult to come up with a convincing theory for how a young child could actually do it. We now have, with optimality theory, some very concrete proposals about how language acquisition is possible."

Smolensky and Prince's book about optimality theory is to be published by the MIT Press.

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