Fifty years ago, the philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky speculated that humans are able to learn language easily as children because knowledge of grammar is 'hardwired' into human brains. In other words, we know some of the fundamental things about human language at birth, without ever being taught.

Controversial?  Yes, but a group of cognitive scientists now say he may have been onto something.   They contend we are born with knowledge of certain syntactical rules that make learning human languages easier.

In their study, a small, green, cartoonish 'alien' named Glermi taught English-speaking adults an artificial nano-language named Verblog via a video game interface.  In one experiment, Glermi displayed an unusual-looking blue alien object called a "slergena" on the screen and instructed the participants to say "geej slergena," which in Verblog means "blue slergena." Then participants saw three of those objects on the screen and were instructed to say "slergena glawb," which means "slergenas three."

Although the participants may not have consciously known this, many of the world's languages use both of those word orders - that is, many languages have adjectives that precede nouns, and in many languages nouns are followed by numerals, though rarely are both of those rules used together in the same human language, as they are in Verblog.

As a control, other groups were taught different made-up languages that matched Verblog in every way but used word order combinations that are commonly found in human languages.

Lead author and University of Rochester post-doctoral fellow Jennifer Culbertson reasoned that if knowledge of certain properties of human grammars-such as where adjectives, nouns and numerals should occur-is hardwired into the human brain from birth, the participants tasked with learning alien Verblog would have a particularly difficult time, which is exactly what happened.

 The adult learners who had had little to no exposure to languages with word orders different from those in English quite easily learned the artificial languages that had word orders commonly found in the world's languages but failed to learn Verblog. 
Culbertson says it was clear that the learners' brains "knew" in some sense that the Verblog word order was extremely unlikely, just as predicted by Chomsky a half-century ago.

 The results are important for several reasons, according to Culbertson.   "Language is something that sets us apart from other species, and if we understand how children are able to quickly and efficiently learn language, despite its daunting complexity, then we will have gained fundamental knowledge about this unique faculty.   What this study suggests is that the problem of acquisition is made simpler by the fact that learners already know some important things about human languages-in this case, that certain words orders are likely to occur and others are not."