Why is Language Unique to Humans?

  1. Derek J. Chadwick,
  2. Mathew Diamond Organizer and
  3. Jamie Goode
  1. Jacques Mehler1,2,†,
  2. Marina Nespor3,
  3. Mohinish Shukla1 and
  4. Marcela Peña1

Published Online: 7 OCT 2008

DOI: 10.1002/9780470034989.ch20

Percept, Decision, Action: Bridging the Gaps: Novartis Foundation Symposium 270

Percept, Decision, Action: Bridging the Gaps: Novartis Foundation Symposium 270

How to Cite

Mehler, J., Nespor, M., Shukla, M. and Peña, M. (2006) Why is Language Unique to Humans?, in Percept, Decision, Action: Bridging the Gaps: Novartis Foundation Symposium 270 (eds D. J. Chadwick, M. Diamond and J. Goode), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester, UK. doi: 10.1002/9780470034989.ch20

Author Information

  1. 1

    Cognitive Neuroscience Sector, International School for Advanced Studies, SISSA, Via Beirut 2–4, 34014 Trieste, Italy

  2. 2

    Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France

  3. 3

    Universita di Ferrara, Ferrara, Italy

  1. This paper was presented at the Symposium by Jacques Mehler, to whom correspondence should be addressed.

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 7 OCT 2008
  2. Published Print: 13 JAN 2006

Book Series:

  1. Novartis Foundation Symposia

Book Series Editors:

  1. Novartis Foundation

ISBN Information

Print ISBN: 9780470012338

Online ISBN: 9780470034989



  • human language uniqueness;
  • cognitive neuroscience and language acquisition;
  • infants ‘knowledge’ of Universal Grammar (UG);
  • phonological bootstrapping in infants;
  • optical topography and Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) technology


Cognitive neuroscience has focused on language acquisition as one of the main domains to test the respective roles of statistical vs. rule-like computation. Recent studies have uncovered that the brain of human neonates displays a typical signature in response to speech sounds even a few hours after birth. This suggests that neuroscience and linguistics converge on the view that, to a large extent, language acquisition arises due to our genetic endowment. Our research has also shown how statistical dependencies and the ability to draw structural generalizations are basic processes that interact intimately. First, we explore how the rhythmic properties of language bias word segmentation. Second, we demonstrate that natural speech categories play specific roles during language acquisition: some categories are optimally suited to compute statistical dependencies while other categories are optimally suited for the extraction of structural generalizations.