Language is not only a uniquely human attribute — it is central to most human endeavours. Take science, for instance. How far would we have come without both spoken and written languages in which to communicate our findings, question interpretations and share methodologies? So it is perhaps not surprising that the study of language, and in particular of the acquisition and neural processing of language, is a subject of eternal fascination.
Our 'In the news' column on page 828 reflects this fascination. Recently, it was reported that students at a school for the deaf in Nicaragua had spontaneously developed their own sign language, complete with a vocabulary and grammatical rules like those of other languages. The language seems to have evolved rapidly from simple gestures similar to those used by hearing people to augment speech. The opportunity to study the evolution of a new language has the potential to give unprecedented insight into this process.
More conventional studies of language often focus on how infants learn to understand and reproduce speech. In a review article on page 831, Patricia Kuhl delves into the early acquisition of language. How is it possible for infants to learn to identify words and understand their meanings simply by being exposed to a language? To learn a new language as a teenager or adult can be a tortuous process, but for infants it seems effortless.
Kuhl describes some of the computational strategies and perceptual abilities that allow children to acquire a native language during infancy. She also considers 'native language neural commitment' — the idea that the brain becomes committed to the patterns of the native language in a process that can facilitate further learning of that language, but make it more difficult to learn a language that relies on different patterns.
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In this issue. Nat Rev Neurosci 5, 821 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1540