Maybe it’s human nature, but people often tend to make things more complex than it actually is. For many years, language scientists have assumed that language is like a Russian nesting dolls, made up of small parts in turn made of smaller parts. A new study done in Cornell suggests language is simpler than they had thought.
Language system deals with words by grouping them into little clumps that are associated with meaning. When these word clumps are arranged in a particular order, it’s simply understood. For example “bread and butter” might be represented as a construction. On the other hand, if we reverse the sequence, it would likely not make any sense.
This sequential simplicity demonstrates that language is naturally sequential, given the temporal cues that help us understand and be understood as people use language. Also, the hierarchy concept of small parts in turn made of smaller parts doesn’t take into consideration the many other cues that help convey meaning such as the speaker’s intention and the setting.
The researchers in the study drew on evidence in language related fields such as psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience. Research in evolutionary biology indicates that human acquired language because we have evolved the abilities in an array of areas such as the ability to correctly guess other’s intentions and learn different sounds that we then relate to meaning to create words. While this is the indication from evolutionary biology, hierarchy concept suggests that humans have language due to the highly specialized “hardware” in the brain, but neuroscientists have yet to find it.
Research in cognitive neuroscience suggested that language is processed sequentially. Recent studies have shown that how well adults and children perform on a sequence learning task predicts how well they can process the inundation of words that come at us when we’re listening to someone. The better one is at handling sequences, the easier it is to comprehend language.
This research brings some insight into language learning for language learners and teachers. From a language teaching perspective, I believe teaching collocations may be one good way to help English learners. If humans have the ability to correctly guess other’s intentions, then helping students build background information prior to reading and listening empowers a learner to guess and increase comprehension.