The finding challenges linguistics professor Noam Chomsky's theory of universal grammar, that all children learn language equally well and therefore there must be an underlying common structure to all languages that is somehow "hard-wired" into the brain.
Dr. Ewa Dabrowska of the University of Northumbria and research student James Street tested a range of adults, some post-graduate students, and others who left high-school at age 16. The researchers asked the study subjects to identify the meaning of a number of simple active and passive sentences.
Many who left high school early made mistakes and some did not perform any better than if they had guessed, the study says. However, those who left school early were given instruction after the tests, and they were able to learn the constructions very quickly, Dabrowska says.
"These findings are ground breaking, because for decades the theoretical and educational consensus has been solid," Dabrowska says in a statement. "Regardless of educational attainment or dialect we are all supposed to be equally good at grammar, in the sense of being able to use grammatical cues to understand the meaning of sentences."
Dabrowska presented her findings in a keynote lecture at the United Kingdom Cognitive Linguistics Association Conference.