For most of us, learning to speak in our mother tongue is so natural and instinctive that we need no formal instruction. And ‘natural’ seems to equate, at least in part, to ‘in our genes’, as studies of identical and non-identical twins to tease out the genetic and environmental components of this trait have shown. These are the genes that set us apart from our closest primate relatives and equip us with the unique combination of physical, articulatory and neurological features necessary for spoken language again.
Dr Simon Fisher, a Royal Society Research Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford, was studying for his PhD when he came across Steven Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct, which speculates on the genetic basis of speech development. He was intrigued by Pinker’s ideas. Now, almost ten years later, he is setting up a research group to look at the molecular basis of speech and language development. His research revolves around a key discovery made in the laboratory of Professor Tony Monaco, director of the centre in Oxford – that of the first gene shown to be necessary for the acquisition of spoken language.