[EDLING:169] Genes might help you learn Chinese
Francis M Hult
fmhult at DOLPHIN.UPENN.EDU
Tue May 29 16:51:32 UTC 2007
> Genes might help you learn Chinese Tuesday, 29 May 2007
> Hamish Clarke
> Cosmos Online
> [image: Genes might help you learn Chinese] New research suggests that
> genes might play a role in learning tonal languages like Chinese
> SYDNEY: Healthy babies can learn any language, but new research suggests
> that genes might play a part in learning tonal languages like Chinese.
> Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland found
> a genetic difference between people who speak tonal languages such as
> Chinese and most languages of sub-Saharan Africa and those who speak
> non-tonal languages like English.
> "Our work raises the possibility of taking a new look at the relation
> between genes and language," said Ladd, reporting in the U.S. journal
> of the National Academy of Sciences*.
> The language each person speaks has traditionally been considered an
> entirely cultural trait, determined no more by genes than religious beliefs
> or musical preferences. As evidence, scientists point to the fact that
> regardless of ancestry, any normal baby learns the languages it hears during
> its early years.
> *Don't take that tone with me*
> But now Dediu and Ladd believe they may have found the first evidence that
> genes are involved in acquisition of specific language types. In tonal
> languages, subtle changes in pitch can radically alter the meaning of a
> word. So a non-native Chinese speaker enquiring after the health of
> someone's mother might easily enquire about the wellbeing of their horse
> instead. In non-tonal languages this is not the case, although tone is still
> used to express emotion, convey sarcasm or indicate a question.
> Dediu and Ladd examined published data on 49 distinct populations from
> around the world, looking for the distribution of two genes for brain
> development: ASPM and Microcephalin. They then searched for correlations
> between different forms of each gene and 26 different linguistic features.
> The authors found that there is generally no link between genes and
> linguistic features, but a strong negative correlation emerged between
> speakers of tonal languages and recently evolved forms of ASPM and
> Microcephalin. That is, people with the older forms of these genes were more
> likely to speak tonal languages, even when biases for geography and history
> were removed.
> *Genes, Language and Society *
> Ladd believes that discovering a causal link between population genetics and
> language structure would be big news, but says he and Dediu haven't found
> that link yet. "We've just demonstrated some very unlikely correlations that
> suggest there *might* be such a link." As science uncovers more about
> specific genetic influences, "society is ... going to have to start dealing
> with a lot of policy questions that have only been theoretical up till now,"
> said Ladd. He cites research on the genetic influences over dyslexia as one
> example. Should parents, educators or speech pathologists be given access to
> a child's genetic information in this case?
> Bruce Lahn, a geneticist from the University of Chicago, published the
> dataset on ASPM and Microcephalin on which Dediu and Ladd's work is partly
> based. "The work is highly significant if confirmed," Lahn said. "It is, to
> my knowledge, the first attempt to relate linguistic features, traditionally
> considered to be purely cultural, with a possible genetic contribution." The
> authors hope that future experiments will reveal the path by which ASPM and
> Microcephalin exert their influence on individual brains, and ultimately, on
> the preferences of entire populations for different types of language.
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