Throughout our lifetimes, we are constantly learning and relearning language. Some scientists believe this may explain why computer programs do not meet with much success teaching language. Computers cannot adapt to changing circumstances; people do. Our language skills change every time we encounter a new experience. Even before a baby says his first word, his brain is sorting out the sounds and shapes of the words and sentences he hears around him.
Scientists have found that by the age of two, children already know a lot about sentence structure and basic grammar. This happens even though hearing people speak doesn't provide them with every possible example of how to put a sentence together. They can even distinguish inflections in speech, and by age four, they understand passive tense: for example, "the cake was eaten." Many believe this is evidence that certain aspects of language are innate -- a set of underlying principles in the brain that forms the basis for all language. In fact, although there are more than 5,000 different languages are spoken in the world, all seem to adhere to certain basic rules of universal grammar.
But this innate genetic ability must be combined with everyday experiences in order to learn the subtle nuances of a language, such as whether the object of a sentence comes before or after the verb. Language is a combination of the ability to memorize words, and the ability to identify the underlying rules of a given language. For instance, children memorize tens of thousands of proper nouns when learning to speak: "dog," "cat," "tree," and so on. And they quickly pick up "rules," like the notion of adding -ed to a verb to describe something that occurred in the past: "walk" becomes "walked," for instance. But certain irregular verbs are exceptions to the rules: "come" becomes "came," bring" becomes "brought," "draw" becomes "drew." Children must memorize these exceptions. It's also why non-native English speakers struggle with these verb forms.
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