Language Barriers In Animal Caretaking

We all know that animals can’t really speak English, nor any other language.  However that doesn’t stop us from communicating with them. Animals are therefore key in certain studies of linguistics.  It’s interesting to see how studies have shown that humans make similar sounds to animals in order to get them to do certain things, such as stay or come, regardless of the human language the handler is speaking.


When learning Spanish or another language, it’s kind of fun to keep these ideas in mind – think of learning a new language as an exercise in speaking to another species – many of the links are the same, such as gestures, tones of voice, inflections, etc.

The paradox of language acquisition

Children learn their native language by hearing grammatical sentences from their parents or others. From this ‘environmental input’, children construct an internal representation of the underlying grammar. Children are not told the grammatical rules. Neither children nor adults are ever aware of the grammatical rules that specify their own language.

Chomsky pointed out that the environmental input available to the child does not uniquely specify the grammatical rules [35]. This phenomenon is known as ‘poverty of stimulus’ [36]. ‘The paradox of language acquisition’ is that children of the same speech community reliably grow up to speak the same language [37]. The proposed solution is that children learn the correct grammar by choosing from a restricted set of candidate grammars. The ‘theory’ of this restricted set is ‘universal grammar’ (UG). Formally, UG is not a grammar, but a theory of a collection of grammars.

The concept of an innate, genetically determined UG was controversial when introduced some 40 years ago and has remained so. The mathematical approach of learning theory, however, can explain in what sense UG is a logical necessity.


Imagine a speaker-hearer pair. The speaker uses grammar, G , to construct sentences of language L . The hearer receives sentences and should after some time be able to use grammar G to construct other sentences of L . Mathematically speaking, the hearer is described by an algorithm (or more generally, a function), A , which takes a list of sentences as input and generates a language as output.

Let us introduce the notion of a ‘text’ as a list of sentences. Specifically, text T of language L is an infinite list of sentences of L with each sentence of L occurring at least once. Text T N contains the first N sentences of T . We say that language L is learnable by algorithm A if for each T of L there exists a number M such that for all N > M we have A (T N ) = L . This means that, given enough sentences as input, the algorithm will provide the correct language as output.

Furthermore, a set of languages is learnable by an algorithm if each language of this set is learnable. We are interested in what set of languages, L = {L 1 ,L 2 ,..}, can be learned by a given algorithm.

A key result of learning theory, Gold’s theorem [23], implies there exists no algorithm that can learn the set of regular languages. As a consequence, no algorithm can learn a set of languages that contains the set of regular languages, such as the set of context-free languages, context-sensitive languages or computable languages.

Gold’s theorem formally states there exists no algorithm that can learn a set of ‘super-finite’ languages. Such a set includes all finite languages and at least one infinite language. Intuitively, if the learner infers that the target language is an infinite language, whereas the actual target language is a finite language that is contained in the infinite language, then the learner will not encounter any contradicting evidence, and will never converge onto the correct language. This result holds in greatest possible generality: ‘algorithm’ here includes any function from text to language.

Nowak, Martin A., et al. “Computational and evolutionary aspects of language.” Nature, vol. 417, no. 6889, 2002, p. 611+

Clearly the acquisition of languages is a difficult thing to put into a formula.  It involves certain techniques – however everyone’s learning styles are quite similar.  When writing up my review of the Rocket Spanish program, I talked about how some people would much prefer the style of that program over the “immersion” style of the Rosetta Stone series.

Are all humans alike when it comes to language acquisition?  It’s something that will have to be studied further for more detailed information and knowledge.