LINGUIST List 3.141

Tue 11 Feb 1992

Disc: Linguistics and the Popular Press

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  1. Richard Sproat, The Popular Press

Message 1: The Popular Press

Date: Mon, 10 Feb 92 18:19:21 ESThe Popular Press
From: Richard Sproat <>
Subject: The Popular Press

The very latest from the popular press:

 r a AM-GrammarGene 02-10 0463
 AM-Grammar Gene,0560

 Gene Controls Learning Of Grammar, Researchers Say
 AP Science Writer

 CHICAGO (AP) - A single dominant gene controls the ability to
 learn grammar, said a researcher who studied a family whose members
 don't know to add ``ed'' for the past tense of verbs or ``s'' for
 plural nouns.
 Myrna Gopnik of Montreal's McGill University said Monday the
 studies show that in all other ways the members are intellectually
 But, she said, ``Language is a problem they solve by sheer
 She said people lacking the grammar gene ``are worn out just by
 talking'' because they must continually struggle with verb tense
 and noun plurals.
 ``The hardest part for them is people thinking that they are
 stupid,'' Gopnik said. ``They are not. You have to think of them as
 people without a native language.''
 Gopnik reported on her research at the meeting of the American
 Association for the Advancement of Science.
 Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said
 it was first suggested in the 1960s that there was a genetic
 component to learning language and that recent studies, such as
 that by Gopnik, supports that belief.
 He said his research shows that learning words and learning to
 apply the rules of grammar are two different functions springing
 from different parts of the brain.
 People with a normal grammar gene naturally learn language rules
 that make verbs past tense or turn nouns into plurals, Gopnik said.
 People lacking the gene, however, must learn through another
 intellectual process how to change verbs and nouns.
 ``They will say `today I walk, yesterday I ...' and they don't
 know how to finish,'' said Gopnik. ``For some reason they don't
 build the general rules of language'' such as adding the ``ed'' to
 mak walk past tense.
 Gopnik studied a family in which, of 30 members across three
 generations, 16 suffered from the inability to learn grammar rules.
 Otherwise, the 16 were normal, as were the unaffected family
 ``They have not found a genetic marker for this gene,'' said
 Gopnik. ``But we have very good evidence that it is genetic.''
 Inheriting the language defect follows classic rules of
 genetics, said Gopnik. A member of the family has a 30 percent
 chance of inheriting the language problem, while the rest of the
 population has a 3 percent chance.
 Studies by other researchers have supported the existence of a
 grammar gene, she said.
 One showed that if one identical twin suffered a language
 difficulty, there was an 80 percent chance that the other would
 also, said Gopnik. For non-identical twins, there was only a 35
 percent chance that both would have the problem.
 Thomas G. Bever of the University of Rochester said his research
 shows that families with left-handed members may inherit a tendency
 to process language differently.
 He said that righthanders with no left-handed family members are
 more senstive to the grammatical structures of language than are
 righthanders with left-handed relatives.
 Right handers with some left-handed relatives can recall and use
 individual words more skillfully than members of an all
 right-handed family, said Bever.
 This suggests, he said, that there is an inherited or genetic
 component to naturally learning grammar rules or in the ability to
 use individual words.

	 AP-NY-02-10-92 1749EST
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