Signs Support Chomsky

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Science  23 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5756, pp. 1900
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5756.1900d

A study of several deaf people who improvised a form of sign language to communicate with their families lends weight to what linguist Noam Chomsky first argued in the 1950s: that grammar is innate rather than learned.

The study, by cognitive scientists Marie Coppola and Elissa Newport of the University of Rochester in New York, focused on three young deaf adults, each raised in an isolated area of Nicaragua with no contact with anyone who knew formal sign language.

To see if the three so-called home signers employed the grammatical concept of “subject,” Coppola showed them 66 videotaped events in which subjects were either active (such as “John”) or inanimate (such as a door). The signers were then asked to describe to a family member what had happened. The signers nearly always began their description with the subject—an indication to Coppola and Newport that they had incorporated this grammatical concept.

To make sure, the researchers did a second study in which they showed vignettes depicting events in which characters changed from being active agents to being the “topic” of an action (for example, a woman arranges some flowers, then a man kisses her.) Again, the signers always put the subject at the beginning, the researchers reported online last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Home signers could get their message across” without using grammatical concepts, says psychologist Ann Senghas of Barnard College in New York City. But this study shows that even when people make up their own sign language, “language-learning and language-processing mechanisms kick in.”

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