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Guide Index

Body Sense

The Magic Years?

Born to Talk

A Change of Mind

Speaking For Herself
in the classroom

IT'S A KID'S WORLD: Born to Talk

Is language in our genes? Psycholinguist Steven Pinker believes it is. Drawing on the revolutionary ideas about language proposed by M.I.T. linguist Noam Chomsky, Pinker theorizes that the human brain is built for language. Frontiers goes on location with Pinker as he conducts creative experiments with young children to find out more about how our brains are wired to acquire language. For Pinker, the three-letter word "wug" is not just a nonsense phrase, but a clue to innate linguistic ability.

Curriculum Links
Activity 1: Thinking About Language
Activity 2: Language Mini-Quiz




social behavior

linguistics, narration,
story development


conceptual thinking,
networking, symbols

language development,
learning, memory



For a long time, it was believed that children learned to talk by imitating adults and copying their speech. But this approach could not fully explain why young children were able to figure out and apply the rules of whatever language they learned. In the late 1950s, M.I.T. linguist Noam Chomsky began to revolutionize the way people thought about language. His ideas provided the turning point in 20th-century linguistics. Chomsky theorized that children are born with some form of a language-acquisition device that enables them to analyze the speech they hear and derive the rules of that language.

Steven Pinker, Chomsky's associate at M.I.T. and author of The Language Instinct (W. Morrow, 1994; HarperPerennial edition, 1995), took his theories further. As you see on Frontiers, Pinker conducts studies to find out more about how a child is able to hear a new construction or even a nonsense phrase and apply the rules of language. The ability to acquire language must be innate, he reasons. How else could people invent and create new words?

If you have younger siblings at home, you might try out the "wug" test with them, using your own nonsense words. Or, videotape and transcribe conversations among children and study the sentence structure.

  • Do you think language in humans is innate?

  • Why do you think language originated? Some anthropologists believe language originated when early humans learned to use tools. Explain why the two events may have coincided.

  • How is human language different from communication systems of higher nonhuman primates? Is the language of humans unique?

  • How many different ways do you use language throughout the day? Consider talking, writing, thinking and reading.

  • If you had to give someone directions from your house to your school, would the verbal directions be different from a pictorial description?

  • Can you think of ways your language is changing? How do new phrases and expressions (for example, he dissed me or have a nice day) get started?

  • Can you create a sentence no one has ever heard or said before?

  1. About how many sounds are there in the English language?
    a. 20
    b. 40
    c. 100

  2. An educated adult in America knows about how many words?
    a. 40,000
    b. 10,000
    c. 100,000

  3. How many languages are believed to exist in the world today?
    a. about 1,000
    b. about 5,000
    c. about 17,000

  4. Inhabitants of what island nation still speak virtually the same language as their Viking ancestors of the 10th century?

  1. b
  2. a
  3. b
  4. Iceland, where nearly everyone is highly literate and people read medieval sagas in the original language.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.