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Study Reports Children and Apes Learn Language Using Different Techniques

Update Date: Apr 03, 2013 01:41 PM EDT

Researchers have believed that young children and non-human primates learn language similarly, which would mean that they might also use language in the same ways. However, based on a new finding, researchers concluded that young children and apes use language quite differently. In young children, language appears to develop via the use and influence of grammar, which gives language structure. For non-human primates, however, language is often displayed as a result of imitation. This study proves that language development is very different between humans and apes.

The head researcher of the study, Charles Yang from the University of Pennsylvania, devised a study that would test two hypotheses surrounding language development. The first hypothesis stated that young children learned language through mimicry. The second one believed that children picked up on language through the system of grammatical guidelines and rules. Certain linguists and experts have believed that young children develop language through imitation first since children often differentiate between two main words, "a" and "the," when the differentiation was unnecessary since it did not alter the context. These two words can often be used with any nouns, such as "a" cat and "the" cat without changing the meaning, and the fact that children often do not use these words interchangeably suggests that they do not know that both words can be used in the same grammatical way.

Yang challenged that hypothesis by stating that the even adults have preferences when using the words "a" and "the" with specific nouns. For example, people tend to prefer saying "the" bathroom as opposed to "a" bathroom although both ways are technically correct. Yang decided to test both concepts by evaluating how young children, who recently learned how to use two word combinations, use such combinations. He found that children were able to diversify their word combinations, indicating that they were not just imitating what they heard from adults. If they were developing language by using imitation, their word combinations would be very limited.

Yang enlisted the help of Nim Chimpsky, the famous chimpanzee that knows American Sign Language. Yang recorded how many word combinations Nim knew and found that Nim had fewer combinations and thus, less language diversity than a young child.

Yang's findings provide insight into the differences between young children and non-human primates. His study shows that humans and monkeys are more different than previously perceived. Even though chimpanzees can be taught language, they might not have the capacity to learn grammar and use language effectively.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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