People instinctively organise a new language according to a logical hierarchy, not simply by learning which words go together, as computer translation programs do. The finding may add further support to the notion that humans possess a "universal grammar", or innate capacity for language.
The existence of a universal grammar has been in hot dispute among linguists ever since Noam Chomsky first proposed the idea half a century ago. If the theory is correct, this innate structure should leave some trace in the way people learn languages.
To test the idea, Jennifer Culbertson, a linguist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and her colleague David Adger of Queen Mary University of London, constructed an artificial "nanolanguage".
They presented English-speaking volunteers with two-word phrases, such as "shoes blue" and "shoes two", which were supposed to belong to a new language somewhat like English. They then asked the volunteers to choose whether "shoes two blue" or "shoes blue two" would be the correct three-word phrase.