News – Language Genes

Research presented to this week’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has indicated that mutations in a specific gene cannot explain the evolution of human speech. Observations that mutations in the Foxp2 gene led to language impairments, and that chimpanzees have neither the capacity for language nor the Foxp2 mutations, had implied that the gene was directly connected to the development of language. Professor Robert Berwick of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, however, argues that the development of language capacity is better explained through the study of deeper internal mechanisms. His approach compares the structure of languages with the structure of bird songs, which share with all human languages fundamental characteristics related to their metrical structure. Berwick believes the sing-song beat characteristic of poetry, music and bird songs may reveal a fundamental aspect of how brains process language. Berwick added that even defining language in a precise way is daunting, as ongoing disputes over the significance of language experiments with apes, parrots and dolphins have made clear. He concluded that because the same internal mental construction can be expressed through verbal speech, writing or sign language without changing its basic nature, language is not ‘this external thing you hear. It’s about the representation inside your head’.