It has often been claimed that humans learn language using brain components that are specifically dedicated to this purpose. Now, new evidence strongly suggests that language is in fact learned in brain systems that are also used for many other purposes and even pre-existed humans, say researchers in PNAS (Early Edition online Jan. 29).
The research combines results from multiple studies involving a total of 665 participants. It shows that children learn their native language and adults learn foreign languages in evolutionarily ancient brain circuits that also are used for tasks as diverse as remembering a shopping list and learning to drive.
“Our conclusion that language is learned in such ancient general-purpose systems contrasts with the long-standing theory that language depends on innately-specified language modules found only in humans,” says the study’s senior investigator, Michael T. Ullman, PhD, professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
“These brain systems are also found in animals — for example, rats use them when they learn to navigate a maze,” says co-author Phillip Hamrick, PhD, of Kent State University. “Whatever changes these systems might have undergone to support language, the fact that they play an important role in this critical human ability is quite remarkable.” Paper. (paywall) – Phillip Hamrick, Jarrad A. G. Lum, Michael T. Ullman. Child first language and adult second language are both tied to general-purpose learning systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018; 201713975 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1713975115 More.
All the odder then that the rats never learned to talk. Evolution is becoming quite messy.
See also: Linguist: Further thoughts on how agency is embedded in language
Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness