“Blueberry!” I tell my 15-month-old son as I hand him one, hoping that he makes the connection between the piece of fruit and its name as I daydream about the glorious day when he says, “Please, Dad, can I have another blueberry?” For now, he points at the bowl full of tasty morsels and babbles something incomprehensible. His pediatrician, family and friends all assure me that he's on the right track. Before I know it, he'll be rattling off the request for another blueberry and much, much more.
This pointing and babbling is all a part of the language learning process, they say, even though the process itself remains largely a mystery. One prominent, though controversial, hypothesis is that some knowledge of grammar is hardwired into our brains. “There's some knowledge that the learner has that actually makes this process easier,” Jennifer Culbertson, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester, explained to me today. This hypothesis was originally proposed 50 years ago by philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Culbertson recently confirmed it with an experiment featuring a virtual green blob for a teacher named Glermi who speaks a nonsensical language called Verblog.