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Localizing Language In the Brain 79

RogerRoast writes "A new study by MIT scientists pinpoints areas of the brain used exclusively for language (PDF), providing a partial answer to a longstanding debate in cognitive science. According to the study, there are parts of our brain dedicated to language and only language. After having their subjects perform the initial language task, which they call a 'functional localizer,' they had each one do a subset of seven other experiments: one on exact arithmetic, two on working memory, three on cognitive control, and one on music; since these are the functions 'most commonly argued to share neural machinery with language.' The authors say the results don't imply that every cognitive function has its own dedicated piece of cortex; after all, we're able to learn new skills, so there must be some parts of the brain that are both high-level and functionally flexible."
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Localizing Language In the Brain

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  • I would love to know if people that speak multiple languages get one language area for all languages or one area per language.

    If we get multiple areas, are they next to each other?

    Does it make a difference if you learn the second language when you are young, or later in life?

    Finally, what about computer languages such as Perl/C++/Java etc. Are they treated the same as English/Spanish/etc. or more like Math?

    Sorry, no answers here, just more questions.

    • Warning: Uninformed opinion:
      That will depend on how you learn the new language.

      If you learn a new language by babbling it with friends, not a care in the world whether you're doing it right or wrong, just effortlessly correcting anything you discover you're doing wrong, you'll learn it in a certain way.

      If you systematically learn a language in school, but never use it in the real world, you'll learn it in a certain, different way.

      If you learn a language constantly worried whether anything you say is wrong o

      • Re:Multi-lingual? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Mox-Dragon ( 87528 ) on Wednesday August 31, 2011 @11:40AM (#37265162)

        I've got an undergraduate degree in linguistics - which, granted, isn't much, but i did spend some time learning about language acquisition. The general consensus within linguistics is that there exists both a language acquisition device (LAD) and a critical period for language learning. Language learning is a biological process on par with learning how to process visual data that (in neurotypical individuals) unfolds regularly given adequate input. After somewhere between 11-13 years the LAD switches off, and languages that are learned after this critical period are typically learned imperfectly.

        I've seen side-by-side fMRI scans of people speaking two languages they learned before the critical period and of people speaking a language learned before and a language learned after. In the true bilingual speakers, both languages lit up the same area of the brain, and in the speakers who learned a new language after the critical period, the post-critical language lit up a different area of the brain from the native language.

        As far as post-critical-period second language acquisition goes, there is some indication that the LAD is involved in the process - there is a specific order in which English speakers will learn grammatical features of German regardless of who taught them or what method they used to learn the language. There are actually some language acquisition theorists (Krashen in particular) who think that language processing and production (at a grammatical level) is all done at an automatic level, and that all our conscious brains do is monitor what comes out.

        The environment you learn the language in and your degree of identification with the target language's culture do play a pretty big role in how accurately you'll be able to reproduce the target language, though.

        Also, programming "languages" aren't capital-L languages and are (presumably) not handled by the part of the brain that handles language.

        • by Nyder ( 754090 )

          ... After somewhere between 11-13 years the LAD switches off, and languages that are learned after this critical period are typically learned imperfectly.


          So your saying the Spanish classes I flunked in high school wasn't my fault?

          • Clearly language learning should be emphasized in primary school; by high school you've already lost your peak learning capacity for language.

            I can see that the high-school language thing would've made sense once, since it was an academic subject with greater emphasis on written translation and defunct languages (Latin and Ancient Greek), and well beyond the average primary school teacher or student.

            But now, we care more about fluent communication in living languages, and there's generally no shortage of na

        • by gr8dude ( 832945 )

          > In the true bilingual speakers, both languages lit up the same
          > area of the brain, and in the speakers who learned a new
          > language after the critical period, the post-critical language
          > lit up a different area of the brain from the native language.

          Hmm, so the areas are different, but is that an indicator of quality? You write that "languages that are learned after this critical period are typically learned imperfectly", but it can be caused by something else (the brain area is just correlated

      • Good points. And there's another dimension, that hasn't been picked up in this discussion yet - modality of learning. Second-language learners may be visual, kinetic or audile types (or combinations of these, though there's usually a dominant mode), and successful learning depends on a teacher recognizing a mode and adopting an appropriate methodology. I've also observed that some learners have an affinity for one language (or language group), and experience difficulty getting to grips with other language g
    • Knowing 5 languages I can at least say that they definitely not get completely different and isolated areas, which would be as expected because probably the "machinery" that makes it possible at all is highly specific and sophisticated. I imagine that vocabulary and the grammar are stored in some way together but almost as if they get "tagged" with a specific language. But when you speak multiple languages you will have many moments when you mix up words or grammar rules and when learning them you will have

    • I would love to know if people that speak multiple languages get one language area for all languages or one area per language. If we get multiple areas, are they next to each other?

      IANAE, but I would imagine a lot of these things depend on the brain, on the familiarity with the language, etc. but that there is "common machinery" to all languages, and that's what this is talking about.

      I read an article several years ago that suggested that dyslexia may happen because dyslexics effectively lack (or perhaps just don't use) some of the normal language processing of the brain, and instead language gets processed by the puzzle-solving parts of the brain. I've also read that dyslexia is mo

    • Excellent question, and one way to examine this would be to look at bilingual speakers who have suffered brain damage. If both languages relied on a single speech center, you would expect impairment as a result of the damage to be about equal for both languages. If, on the other hand, one language was clearly impaired while the other was not, these results would suggest two independent processing centers in the brain.

      Unfortunately, the results are not as clear. Sometimes the first language acquired recov

    • Yes, I am intrigued as well about "sectors" almost like a hdd when it spins and places certain things in memory, they usually group together, although there is not set place on the hdd which is used only for this type of files, or etc....

      You have to give it to god, when he built us, he definitely had the best computer in mind, we are great machine!

    • I'm a native English speaker, learnt some French and a few words of other European languages - then picked up conversational Italian in my late 40s.

      I've found that yes, there is "English" and "Other" for me. I sometimes lapse into Italian when trying to speak some French.

      And I'm not bragging here - learning a language was difficult for me. It's hard work. You just do it. No quick trip, no easy way (well, not really). Just stick at it.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    For those who need a bit of background about what this is all about, and why this study is so important to the study of cognitive linguistics, we turn to a bit of history.

    Linguistics has always been closely intertwined with psychology. So much so, in fact, that both modern cognitive linguistics and psychology approaches stem from reactions to an idea called behaviorism []. Everyone's 'favorite' linguist, Noam Chomsky [], was one of the first to try and go beyond behaviorism's explanations. Much has been said and

    • Pinpointing specific, exclusive areas for language supports the nativist conclusion, dealing a blow to the structuralist theory. Evolution at work, perhaps?

      Does it really deal a blow the the structuralist theory? Or does it simply mean that language does not share the same neural machinery as the other tasks in the experiment? Perhaps it just so happens that those particular structures in the brain are useful for language, but not those other tasks. It doesn't mean they are necessarily intended specifically for processing language. From TFA: "Future studies will test the newly identified language areas with even more non-language tasks to see if their function

    • I've always felt that the no-language-acquisition-device-hypothesis has been on really shaky footing. If you put kids w/o a first language together, they'll develop one - all on their own - without any linguistic input (there are a couple of pretty famous cases of this happening at schools for the deaf in developing nations) and it would be pretty hard to explain that without some existing linguistic structures in the brain.

  • by Sven-Erik ( 177541 ) on Wednesday August 31, 2011 @10:09AM (#37264310)

    Quote: "Researchers in Israel, Canada and France used brain imaging to observe the neural activity of eight blind subjects as they read Braille. They found that although the blind subjects were using their sense of touch, their brains showed activity in the same so-called visual region that sighted people use when they read."

    More at []

  • by dogmatixpsych ( 786818 ) on Wednesday August 31, 2011 @10:10AM (#37264326) Journal
    As someone who does neuroimaging research, what appears to be exciting about this approach to fMRI is that it is on an individual-by-individual basis, not at a group level (which is mentioned in the MITNews article). Almost all fMRI work is at a group level. While I perform some group analyses, most of my work is on an individual basis (but I do structural imaging, not functional). Group analyses can have severe limitations that are not always discussed by the researchers and are almost never understood by people outside the field of neuroimaging.

    From the article: "It’s the same way for brains. 'Brains are different in their folding patterns, and where exactly the different functional areas fall relative to these patterns,' Fedorenko says. 'The general layout is similar, but there isn’t fine-grained matching.' So, she says, analyzing data by 'aligning brains in some common space is just never going to be quite right. Ideally, then, data would be analyzed for each subject individually; that is, patterns of activity in one brain would only ever be compared to patterns of activity from that same brain."

    This process of aligning brains is called registration. Even if you are just working within one subject, there is registration involved (between the functional scan, in this case, and the structural - so you know what part of the brain is being activated). I spend about 25% of my imaging work dealing with checking registrations or trying to improve registrations. It's really a key step in neuroimaging work, one that not enough researchers consider seriously enough. So that's why this approach to fMRI is interesting - the researchers are trying to minimize the effects of poor registration, which can lead to completely invalid results.
  • The summary links to a reply of a critique of a 2009 paper. The original paper (with brain imaging goodness) can be found here [].
    • by Jmc23 ( 2353706 )
      While you linked to the paper that was critiqued and then responded to by this team, neither has anything to do with the study mentionned in the article.
  • I tried to learn Japanese for years nothing stuck. Academic study of this subject now bores me and as soon as I open the book I could sleep for a week. I need some Paul McKenna NLP training to make me an obsessive compulsive I think.

    Lazy, too right I am.
    • by tepples ( 727027 )
      Have you tried watching subtitled anime?
      • Yes. My Mrs is Japanese and just slates the translations as being awful. Not point asking her to help me learn Japanese either. It has always ended up in argument and pointing out errors in books and saying no one talks like that. Best she says out of it really. :)
        Will to learn lost - Can't I have a chip I plug into my head? I've learnt a lot from porn, but it isn't helpful with the in-laws.
        • by Jmc23 ( 2353706 )
          I would suggest watching anime without the subtitles, listening to japanese music, and getting your wife to talk to you in japanese after which she can repeat in english.

          The hard part of language is not ranslating one word to another, low powered computers can do that. What is important is becoming familiar with the flow of he language, learning to distinguish word boundaries from sylable boundaries and letting your brain figure out patterns in the language. Music lets you hear the language more pure in

          • by tepples ( 727027 )
            You make good points. I have only one thing to add:

            Music lets you hear the language more pure in tone, slower with more distinct boundaries as well as with numerous repetition.

            Just make sure you don't end up listening to the J-rock equivalent of Bob Dylan.

  • by taiwanjohn ( 103839 ) on Wednesday August 31, 2011 @10:32AM (#37264482)

    I just watched this @Google talk [] yesterday, which finds wide variation in the way people think about various tasks. It doesn't contradict the findings of this MIT team, it just shows how variable and "plastic" these functions can be. One example that comes to mind is students from one country (France, IIRC) showed a lot of activation in the hearing areas of the brain when doing simple arithmetic tasks. They said this was because they learned arithmetic through rote repetition of tables, and thus used those aural regions when doing the tasks. (They also said they preferred doing math problems in a quiet environment to avoid distraction.)

    IANA neuro-scientist, I just enjoy learning about this stuff. For any other armchair brain enthusiasts out there, you might also enjoy this lecture series on Human Behavioral Biology [] by Robert Sapolsky at Stanford.

    • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

      Interesting - I would wonder if fundamentally you'd expect a person's ability in a particular subject to be influenced by the method in which it is taught, if some areas of the brain truly are better at some things than others.

      Perhaps the nature of the auditory areas of the brain is more or less suited to processing math (or more likely some kinds of math) than other regions, and you handicap yourself if you learn in one way vs another.

      Plus, people have different learning styles, but could that be because w

  • Do parrots and dolphins and other species which use language show the same results?

    • They communicate, but they don't actually use language. Also, it is hard to point out clear analogues in primate brains, much less other mammals or birds.
      • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

        I dunno - that Nova episode suggested that dogs can certainly recognize vocabulary. I don't know what defines language, however. I would tend to think that there is more to it than word recognition, but my wife has aphasia and her vocabulary was the biggest thing that was impacted (word recognition along with everything else), so there is clearly a connection.

        • I'm not a linguist, but I do know from being in the cognitive sciences that language involves syntax, grammar, etc. Dogs can learn words to respond to commands (or get excited about a treat or a walk) but it isn't the same as having a conversation with them.
  • Get a Geek (Score:4, Funny)

    by sgt scrub ( 869860 ) <(saintium) (at) (> on Wednesday August 31, 2011 @11:27AM (#37265002)

    After having their subjects perform the initial language task, which they call a 'functional localizer,' they had each one do a subset of seven other experiments:

    They could have just monitored a Geek trying to talk to a sexy girl and look for the part of the brain that shut down.

  • I was lucky enough to hear Nancy Kanwisher give a talk summarising her lab's work, it's all pretty impressive. There are some ingenious experiments in there, yet they are still comprehensible to non-neuroscientists. []

  • There is something odd about research out of MIT. They seem to really like the idea that there are parts of the brain that innately do one specific thing (well, at least Nancy Kanwisher does, and she is on this paper). It is pretty much ridiculous to argue that we have have a unique reading area of the brain since it is something the human race hasn't been doing that long. It wouldn't surprise me if the same brain regions are used in most people to read, but it is very odd to assume that one brain region
    • by Jmc23 ( 2353706 )
      It might seem odd to you if you don't actually read the research. Doing so will answer the questions you have quite nicely.

      hint: pay less attention to th news article and slashdot submissions and you might notice the researchers don't claim or prove halve the things that are claimed.

      • I've read plenty of other research (check out the fusiform gyrus/face area debates) and perhaps erroneously jumped to the conclusion that this was a bit of that history repeating.
    • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

      I can speak a little from practical experience, even if I'm not an authority. My wife has aphasia as a result of a stroke in her left temporal lobe. Immediately after her stroke she struggled to remember her own name and language-based communication of virtually any kind was almost impossible (written, verbal). However, she had no trouble understanding pictures or drawing them, and heavy use of a smartphone with google image search was able to get us through the early problems.

      Since then she has recovere

  • The study linked to is a response to a critique of a prior study, which really has nothing o do with the current study except self-justifying their belief that theeir method for functionally localizing regions of interest(fROI) is specific enough and repeatable enough on individual subjects to be of use.

    The study the article talks about has not been accepted for publication yet. So this seems to be more of a puff piece to generate interest, really it bugs me when scientists do this. Without the study it'

  • Or so says Casey Schwartz of Brown University [] My three children were raised speaking their mother's tongue (French). And like the kids in the article, they seem smarter.

    On the flip side, I'm also bilingual, but sort of like an Apple "Power PC", speaking both languages seems to make me worse at either.

  • used exclusively for language ... a subset of seven other experiments ... since these are the functions 'most commonly argued to share neural machinery with language.'

    We eliminated several hypotheses that oppose ours, now we will see how far vulgarizations will go to claim that we proved our own hypothesis!

Many aligators will be slain, but the swamp will remain.