‘A remarkable feat of cognition’: 1.5 megabytes of information required to learn native language, UC Berkeley study finds

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The process of learning one’s native language may actually require an enormous amount of cognitive function, a recent UC Berkeley study found, countering the theory that native language acquisition is encoded in our genome.

From infancy to childhood, learners acquire about 12.5 million bits, or about 1.5 megabytes, of linguistic information in order to fully process how their native language works, according to the study.

It may seem surprising but, in terms of digital media storage, our knowledge of language almost fits compactly on a floppy disk,” the study text said.

Co-authored by UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology Steven Piantadosi and University of Rochester doctoral candidate Francis Mollica, the study was published March 27 in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Using the definition of eight bits to one byte of information, the study found that, on average, learners process about 2,000 bits of information every day regarding how their native language works for the first 18 years of life — a “remarkable feat of cognition.”

The majority of this information relates to lexical semantics, or meaning, rather than syntax, or the arrangement of words or phrases to create sentences, according to the study.

“Our results suggest that if any language-specific knowledge is innate, it is most likely for helping tackle the immense challenge of learning lexical semantics,” the study text said.

Mollica and Piantadosi said in the study text that they were inspired by previous studies that aimed to quantify the capacity of the human memory.

Using computational models to run various calculations about language syntax and semantics, Mollica and Piantadosi also found that the majority of information humans store about language is related to words, rather than syntax and phonemes, the smallest units of speech.

Previous language acquisition studies tackled the debate over whether the process of learning one’s native language follows the nativist theory or the empiricist theory, according to Mollica and Piantadosi’s study. The nativist theory suggests that humans are born with an innate neurological mechanism to encode language. In contrast, empiricism proposes that language acquisition is a learned behavior. This age-old debate is a classic example of nature versus nurture.

Rather than add to the mix of studies comparing nativism and empiricism, this study is the first to quantify the amount of information that a learner must process during language acquisition. Mollica and Piantadosi’s best estimate found that learners must process and remember 1,000 to 2,000 bits per day about their native language from birth to 18 years of age.

“Each day for 18 years a child must wake up and remember, perfectly and for the rest of their life, an amount of information equivalent to the information in this sequence,” the study text said.

Amber Tang is the university news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ambertang_dc.