Chapter 8 – Language Evolution in the Laboratory

Wikis > Chapter 8 - Language Evolution in the Laboratory

2014: Goh Xiao-Qing, Ng Si, Ning You Jing


This is a site dedicated to Language Evolution, mainly focusing on the topic of Language Evolution in the Laboratory. We’ve divided this topic into pages in a chronological order. Hope you’ll have a good read. 😀

Start reading about experiments on language evolution and the ideas behind them now!

1. Introduction

1.1 Observing Language Transmission

The origins of natural language cannot be observed directly. In the field of language evolution, research took to the laboratory only in recent years since work by Kirby S, Cornish H, and Smith K. Evolutionary linguists design experiments in the laboratory to study the human cognitive capacities necessary for language and the emergence of new languages. Computational models such as agent-based simulations, as well as mathematical models are developed to represent and explore the plausible hypotheses about the historical origins of languages.

1.2 Research Significance

Language evolution experiments thus focus on the emergence of new languages and how they are used by human participants. A central theme in language evolution laboratory research is the transformation of individual-level behaviours observed in each participant into linguistic phenomena that can occur at the level of an entire population. The emergence of languages or linguistic phenomena cannot be explained only by reference to the evolution of our biological capacities such as our cognitive mechanisms. As such, we need to consider factors of interaction that occur from generation to generation such as cultural transmission and feedback in providing a considered account for the evolution of language. Research in the laboratory is thus able to provide with empirical data that can further the investigation on the role of cultural transmission and feedback.

What’s next?

This blog first explains iterated learning as the underlying concept of laboratory experiments on language evolution. It then explores the main hypotheses of and previous work on the cultural transmission of language. We further invite you to get to know more about two key types of studies, namely agent-based simulations and experiments with human participants. Lastly, the limitations faced by this area of research are briefly discussed.