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FOXP2: The grammar gene.

Is there a grammar/language gene? This is an interesting question that linguistics finally started to tap into. While the correlation between our genes and our physical traits such as height, skin, eye color, etc. is very clearly undeniable and easy to understand, the correlation between genes and language is a little less obvious and disturbing. There is, in fact, tangible evidence in favor of the gene-language correlation that hints to the fact that such correlation may exist. 

Now what is this evidence and what do studies actually show? A team of British scientists, led by Simon Fisher, could isolate a gene that is believed to be involved in the development of speech and language. This gene, dubbed FOXP2, was found to cause serious language breakdowns when mutated.  We do have a case for this mutation in a British family called KE that suffers from an inherited language disorder that is believed to be attributed to the FOXP2 gene. The disorder is characterized by unintelligible speech, difficulty reproducing sounds in the right sequence, and difficulty producing multi-syllabic words such as "hippopotamus".  (Read more about the KE family [here])

Another piece of evidence is put forth by MIT psychologist and best-selling author of The Language Instinct Steven Pinker.  Pinker discusses a study by Gopnik of Specific Language Impairment. The study showcased family members with a syntax-related disorder. The disorder involved an impairment of the grammatical competence of affected family members, specifically the morphological component. Interestingly enough, this impairment left other cognitive domains unimpacted. One subject who has been studied by Gopnik did above average in math tests, but would often leave off the -ed and -s tense affixes, say things like Carol is cry in the church and would fail to deduce the plural of  wug.

Based on these finding, researchers postulated the likelihood of the existence of a grammar gene (i.e. FOXP2). These findings took media by storm. Different news channels each made their own interpretation of these studies. The Associated Press, for example, wrote that "the ability to learn grammar laid to gene by researcher." Bombeck went even further to unwittingly write "Poor Grammar? It are in the gene." This is not the intent of what studies have shown, though. This is a prime example of how scientific discoveries get addled by journalists working under deadline pressure. 

Other researchers, though, do not buy into the premise. Vargha-Khadem, for one, does not believe it is accurate to call FOXP2 a language gene. Monaco, another opponent of the so-called grammar gene, writes that "the only thing we can say for certain is that one copy of this gene is disrupted, and the result is a speech and language disorder. What it means beyond that requires further investigation." 

What we do know for sure is that genes do affect language. That's the only thing we know. It is still too early to claim that there is a specific language gene that is directly related to language. These studies and others tapped into an interesting area in linguistics and opened up very potential research avenues and we expect to see some breakthroughs in language genetics in the future.

There is no mode of action, no form of emotion, that we do not share with the lower animals. It is only by language that we rise above them…
_Oscar Wilde.

Steven Pinker The Language Instinct.
Feature-blind grammar and dysphagia. Gopnik M. Nature. 1990 Apr 19; 344(6268):715.


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