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Cognition. 2006 Sep;101(2):333-84. Epub 2006 Jun 23.

Why aren't identical twins linguistically identical? Genetic, prenatal and postnatal factors.

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Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive Sciences, Rutgers University - New Brunswick, 152 Frelinghuysen Road, Piscataway NJ 08854, USA. <>


Results of twin studies clearly demonstrate that genetic factors play an important role in the rate of language acquisition and linguistic proficiency attained by normal and impaired children and adults [see Stromswold, K. (2001). The heritability of language: A review and meta-analysis of twin, adoption and linkage studies. Language, 77, 647-723.]. That said, twin-based heritability estimates for language rarely exceed .6 and monozygotic (MZ) twins (who are usually assumed to have identical genetic and environmental endowments) sometimes have very different linguistic profiles. In addition, twins are more likely to suffer linguistic delays and impairments than singletons. Postnatal factors, such as differences in linguistic input twins receive, are usually assumed to be the major reason for these findings. This paper discusses how genetic, epigenetic, and perinatal environmental factors can lower heritability estimates for language, cause MZ twins to be linguistically discordant, and increase the risk of language impairments in twins. We present results from our ongoing Perinatal Environment and Genetic Interaction (PEGI) study that suggest that perinatal environmental factors affect linguistic development more than postnatal factors, and that postnatal factors affect cognitive development more than perinatal factors. Because perinatal factors are overwhelming biological, whereas postnatal factors tend to be psychosocial (e.g., how and how much parents speak to their children), these results support nativist/biological theories of language and language development and call into question empiricist/emergentist theories. These results are also consistent with modularist theories of language. We end by suggesting new methods that can be used to tease apart the effects of prenatal and postnatal environment and to investigate how these factors interact with genetic factors.

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