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May 15, 1996

Lessons From an Optical Illusion: On Nature and Nurture

Author Affiliations

Englewood, Colo

JAMA. 1996;275(19):1522-1523. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03530430066047

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In an experiment designed to discover mankind's natural language, 13th-century German monarch Frederick II ordered foster mothers to raise and care for children but never to speak in their presence. Frederick thought the children would spontaneously speak Hebrew (believed to be the oldest language), Greek, Latin, or the language of their biological parents.

The children died. Frederick couldn't identify humanity's basic language, but, perhaps founding the tradition that no research goes so wrong that a clever investigator can't write up one or two discoveries, Frederick concluded that a mother's loving words are needed for human survival.

In the millennia-old nature or nurture debate over the origins of human knowledge and human nature (see how deeply the question is buried in our language), Frederick came down on the side of nature, believing that we each speak our particular language because that language is a fundamental part of our makeup. In our