Our Ability to Recognize Letters Could Be Hardwired Into Our Brains

Initial findings from new research suggest that there is a relationship between written shapes and the sounds they represent.

Back in the 1960s, the linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky claimed that the human brain is hardwired with an innate understanding of language. This became known as the Universal Grammar theory, and was offered as an explanation of the speed at which children tend to learn their first language. Genetically, the human mind is predisposed to making sense of words and arranging them in a logical sequence as we ovwercome the initial disorder of learning a language.

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Of course, not everybody agreed with Chomsky’s linguistic theory, just as not everybody agrees with the political positions that he has latterly become better known for. One psychologist, Herbert Terrace, went so far in his opposition to Chomsky’s ideas that he conducted an experiment in which he tried to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee. In a play on words, he even named his enforced research participant Nim Chimpsky.

But new research suggesting a link between written language and something more fundamental in our brains could mean we need to look again at Chomsky’s ideas. The study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, found that participants could guess what sounds were represented by letters from unfamiliar alphabets at rates better than you would expect from simple chance. If we have an innate ability to understand writing, then perhaps language more generally is something found much deeper in brains than other learned skills.

If we have an innate ability to understand writing, then perhaps language more generally is something found much deeper in brains than other learned skills.

The new research considers how our minds work when we try to decipher the composition of sound, according to letters, like when we work out the difference between Chomsky and Chimpsky. What is it that causes us to associate the letter K with the sharp sound it represents? Is it because of the physical shape where sharp points protrude from a straight and upright stem? Does that visual representation touch upon something hardwired into our memories on a par with universal grammar? Or, on the other hand, is this just how we are taught to interpret the letter K?

Neuroscientist Nora Turoman in Switzerland and experimental psychologist Suzy Styles in Singapore carried out a series of experiments to try to understand what makes letters look the way they do, and what shapes human understanding about the sounds they represent. The experiments involved showing individual letters from ancient writing systems to a research sample of 98 Singaporean university students and a larger group of 300 international internet users.

In both situations, the participants were shown unfamiliar letters from a diverse range of up to 56 alphabets, representing the sounds of /i/ (the “ee” sound in “feet”), and /u/ (the “oo” sound in “shoe”). Their task was then to guess which of the letters represented the two sounds and report this back to the researchers.

Initial findings from the research suggest that there is indeed a relationship between written shapes and the sounds they represent. When presented with a pair of unfamiliar letters, the readers could guess which was which at rates higher than expected by chance. This suggests that some characteristics of linguistic sounds can be extracted from individual letter shapes by something other than prior learning or experience.

Some may argue that the readers might just be drawing upon a set of physical properties common across all languages. But that would only be the case if the physical properties of all alphabets were the same, and they are not. Japanese, for example, is very different to Arabic or Latin. It seems then that something is happening at a much deeper level in our brains when we decipher the sounds of individual letters.

The researchers believe that basic properties of our senses are involved in matching speech sounds and the shapes deemed to represent them. In particular, they think there may be a link between how detailed a letter is in terms of how much ink is used to write it, and the pitch of the associated sound. In their experiments, the more detailed a letter was, the more likely participants were to guess that it represented the lower-pitched /u/ sound.

A single study isn’t definitive proof, of course, and we’d need more research to really find out. But it does suggest that, in the same vein as Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, associations between linguistic sounds and visual features could be hardwired into the human brain. This makes the study significant for several reasons. First, it makes an important contribution to the fields of psycholinguistics (the relationship between language and psychological processes) and understanding how we acquire languages, for both native and non-native learners of languages.

Second, it could lead to new ways of understanding and teaching literacy by giving readers a better understanding of how speech sounds and written letters are linked. This could be particularly helpful to those who have difficulties with deciphering individual letters within words.

Finally, the research could have an impact on the way that rare languages that are mainly spoken are finally recorded in written versions. Understanding the visual properties of speech sounds could help develop new writing systems that more closely represent the spoken language.

If the human brain is indeed hardwired to particular ways of decoding words themselves, and not just their grammatical order, then the power of individual letters could be far greater than we had ever imagined. This study has given us a whole new way of looking at Chimpsky and Chomsky, and the associations we have not just with names but the letters that give them shape.


Paul Breen is a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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    The authors have done interesting research and analyzed data very well. Discrimination ability could be useful in teaching new scripts to adults. But their introduction reflects ignorance of earlier research on letter shapes and some errors. Below is what is missing.

    – The historical evidence of how the Latin letters formed: The shapes reflect an ancient mnemonic system that associated the shape to the first sound of an associated object. In phoenician (and also Hebrew) A for alef, ox, therefore horns (upside down). K was kaf, palm & fingers. It was the shape of the object therefore that determined the letter shape. The alphabet and its mnemonics transferred into Greek around the 8th century BC, where the alfa, beta, gama, delta have no meaning. From Greece they went to Italy through migrations (presumably from Chalkis, but surely other cities).

    – Earlier research suggests that letter shapes reflect common shapes found in nature, for which the eye receptors are most attuned to (e.g. Changizi & Shimojo, 2005). The authors ought to see that research and think about it.

    – The examples shown in the study show selectivity. The two sanskrit letters are the isolated vowels for the short i and u (long ones have one extra curved line). Would people guess correctly the long isolated vowels and the matras? The japanese kanas have at least 20 different shapes for syllables ending in i and u. It is unclear how many of these Chinese-character derivatives were guessable. Examples with these multiples would reinforce or refute the authors’ hypothesis.

    The authors could argue that prototypical shapes changed through the millennia to reflect to the bouba/kiki effect as the writing implements also improved and permitted greater flexibility. So, this effect would be expected in handwriting. It would also be expected in the Vai script, which was created by an individual in the 19th century (v.s. long-term modifications of ancient script). But the Vai u is the least guessable. The originator seems not to be sensitive to the bouba/kiki effect.

    Given these omissions, the paper mainly shows how author biases arise in research. So where were the reviewers, and what did they know about the history and perceptual learning of alphabets? The Royal Society journal editor should consider that.

    This study may seem to have mere entertainment value, but unforeseen effects can arise. A professor wrote a commentary stating that words may have inordinate power if the brain is hardwired to particular ways of decoding words. That is just what some educators need to advocate word-based methods in teaching literacy. The conclusions may give new life to methods that have failed weaker students worldwide.

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