Mechanisms underlying language acquisition: Benefits from a comparative approach

Daniel J. Weiss, Elissa L. Newport

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


One of the longstanding issues in language research has been the extent to which the mechanisms underlying language acquisition are uniquely human. The primary goal of this article is to introduce the reader to some of the recent developments in comparative language research that have shed new light on this issue. To appreciate the significance of the new developments, we begin with a brief historical overview of language studies that have adopted a comparative approach, and then discuss a subset of the relevant theoretical accounts that seek to explain why humans are the only species capable of acquiring language. We next focus on findings from behavioral studies comparing the performance of human infants and adults with nonhuman primates on tests that tap the perceptual and learning mechanisms that are fundamental to language acquisition. We argue that in cases where the behavioral data appear similar across populations, there is a need to investigate the underlying computational abilities and units of analysis to correctly specify the degree to which the mechanisms are truly shared or are uniquely specified.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)241-257
Number of pages17
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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