Chapter 8 – Language Evolution in the Laboratory

> Chapter 8 - Language Evolution in the Laboratory

2019: Nur Amirah Bte Rosman, Joanne Tan Hui San, Cheng Wei Cong Jonathan
2014: Goh Xiao-Qing, Ng Si, Ning You Jing


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1. Introduction

1.1 Observing Language Transmission

The origins of natural language cannot be observed directly. In recent years, evolutionary linguists have designed experiments in the laboratory to study the human cognitive capacities necessary for language and the emergence of new languages. There are three main methodologies to understand how the acquisition of language occurs among populations of individuals. Firstly, computational/robotic models where embodied agents (see also: Chapter 4) interact with one another in simulated environments (Kirby, 2012). Less commonly, there are also mathematical models which focus on mathematical techniques. Lastly, the iterated learning model (ILM) which uses human subjects, is based on the principle that individuals learn by observing instances of others’ behavior and population level behavior is a collective result of the interaction of individual subjects (Kirby, 2012). These models 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 (Kirby, 2012). 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.

In Part I of this chapter, we will explain iterated learning as the underlying concept of laboratory experiments on language evolution. It explores the main hypotheses of and previous work on the cultural transmission of language. In Part II, we present some studies of computational models which help us corroborate the validity of certain theories in language. Lastly, the limitations faced by this area of research are briefly discussed.