Science of Language
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The Language Fossils Buried in Every Cell of Your Body

Just stopping by to say that I am very much alive and still learning Korean despite the horrors rigors of graduate school.  How is everyone doing? :)

A couple months ago, I stumbled across this interesting article in Discover Magazine that I think is worth sharing:

The Language Fossils Buried in Every Cell of Your Body (click to read the article).

The article is about a certain gene known as FOXP2 which may, at least in part, be involved in the acquisition of language in humans.  As the article states:

FOXP2 didn’t give us language all on its own. In our brains, it acts more like a foreman, handing out instructions to at least 84 target genes in the developing basal ganglia. Even this full crew of genes explains language only in part, because the ability to form words is just the beginning. Then comes the higher level of complexity: combining words according to rules of grammar to give them meaning.

First of all, this is exciting.  I don’t care if you don’t like science but the idea that scientists have identified at least one gene (even if it’s not THE gene.  Chances are THE gene doesn’t even exist) that may be involved in a process as complex as language is kind of mind-blowing.  Humans seem to be the only species that have language and some have even gone so far as to speculate that language and communication is our “innate” ability, so identifying any kind of genetic connection to language is the first step in figuring out the evolution of language.

Obviously it’s difficult to come up with… um… ethical models to study language at the genetic level.  But the fact that certain individuals with language defects have very specific mutations in FOXP2 is fairly convincing evidence that the gene is one of the key orchestrators of language acquisition.  Personally, I’m not sure how much I believe in the existence of a single “grammar” gene or a “syntax” gene, as the article mentions in its concluding sentence, but I’ll have to read up more on the actual neuroscience behind speech and language before I form a solid opinion about it.  It’s an interesting thought though.  And also, mutations don’t necessarily have to have negative effects so it would be interesting to see if polyglots have any beneficial mutations in the FOXP2 gene and/or differential growth and activation of the neurons under its control.  Then again, scientists like to attribute everything and anything to genetics these days but that’s a debate I’d rather not get into.

Wheeeee!  Cool, cool stuff.  And extra cool because the FOXP2 protein is actually part of the same family of DNA regulator proteins as FOXP3, which I’ve been reading a lot about in my classes.  Interestingly, FOXP3 is completely unrelated to language – it’s a key regulator of a special type of immune cells in your body.  But I digress.

Thoughts on the “language gene” anyone?

This entry was posted in: Science of Language

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Writer by day, writer by night. Learning Korean and (some) Japanese since 2010.

2 Comments

  1. Really interesting article! And, as you say it would be interesting to find out if people who learn languages easily have any beneficial mutations in that gene… I don’t know much about biology, but it seems possible given that evolution has made us capable to develope languages… It has to have something to do with mutations in that gene (and some others) doesn’t it?

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  2. Shashwat says

    Well, first of all I’d like to say that it was an interesting read from my side. I’m pretty impressed with this so called gene and atleast I think that polyglots are bound to the benificial mutation of the FOXP2 gene. Though, it might be their interest or their field of career that makes them learn new languages at such a young age and by the time they become adults they know about 11 or 15 languages.

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