Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Our brains are hardwired for language

Date:
April 17, 2014
Source:
Northeastern University College of Science
Summary:
People blog, they don't lbog, and they schmooze, not mshooze. But why is this? Why are human languages so constrained? Can such restrictions unveil the basis of the uniquely human capacity for language? New research shows the brains of individual speakers are sensitive to language universals. Syllables that are frequent across languages are recognized more readily than infrequent syllables. Simply put, this study shows that language universals are hardwired in the human brain.

This is Prof. Iris Berent, professor of psychology at Northeastern University.
Credit: Northeastern University

A groundbreaking study published in PLOS ONE by Prof. Iris Berent of Northeastern University and researchers at Harvard Medical School shows the brains of individual speakers are sensitive to language universals. Syllables that are frequent across languages are recognized more readily than infrequent syllables. Simply put, this study shows that language universals are hardwired in the human brain.

LANGUAGE UNIVERSALS

Language universals have been the subject of intense research, but their basis remains elusive. Indeed, the similarities between human languages could result from a host of reasons that are tangential to the language system itself. Syllables like lbog, for instance, might be rare due to sheer historical forces, or because they are just harder to hear and articulate. A more interesting possibility, however, is that these facts could stem from the biology of the language system. Could the unpopularity of lbogs result from universal linguistic principles that are active in every human brain?

THE EXPERIMENT

To address this question, Dr. Berent and her colleagues examined the response of human brains to distinct syllable types -- either ones that are frequent across languages (e.g., blif, bnif), or infrequent (e.g., bdif, lbif). In the experiment, participants heard one auditory stimulus at a time (e.g., lbif), and were then asked to determine whether the stimulus includes one syllable or two while their brain was simultaneously imaged.

Results showed the syllables that were infrequent and ill-formed, as determined by their linguistic structure, were harder for people to process. Remarkably, a similar pattern emerged in participants' brain responses: worse-formed syllables (e.g., lbif) exerted different demands on the brain than syllables that are well-formed (e.g., blif).

UNIVERSALLY HARDWIRED BRAINS

The localization of these patterns in the brain further sheds light on their origin. If the difficulty in processing syllables like lbif were solely due to unfamiliarity, failure in their acoustic processing, and articulation, then such syllables are expected to only exact cost on regions of the brain associated with memory for familiar words, audition, and motor control. In contrast, if the dislike of lbif reflects its linguistic structure, then the syllable hierarchy is expected to engage traditional language areas in the brain.

While syllables like lbif did, in fact, tax auditory brain areas, they exerted no measurable costs with respect to either articulation or lexical processing. Instead, it was Broca's area -- a primary language center of the brain -- that was sensitive to the syllable hierarchy.

These results show for the first time that the brains of individual speakers are sensitive to language universals: the brain responds differently to syllables that are frequent across languages (e.g., bnif) relative to syllables that are infrequent (e.g., lbif). This is a remarkable finding given that participants (English speakers) have never encountered most of those syllables before, and it shows that language universals are encoded in human brains.

The fact that the brain activity engaged Broca's area -- a traditional language area -- suggests that this brain response might be due to a linguistic principle. This result opens up the possibility that human brains share common linguistic restrictions on the sound pattern of language.

FURTHER EVIDENCE

This proposal is further supported by a second study that recently appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, also co-authored by Dr. Berent. This study shows that, like their adult counterparts, newborns are sensitive to the universal syllable hierarchy.

The findings from newborns are particularly striking because they have little to no experience with any such syllable. Together, these results demonstrate that the sound patterns of human language reflect shared linguistic constraints that are hardwired in the human brain already at birth.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Northeastern University College of Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Iris Berent, Hong Pan, Xu Zhao, Jane Epstein, Monica L. Bennett, Vibhas Deshpande, Ravi Teja Seethamraju, Emily Stern. Language Universals Engage Broca's Area. PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (4): e95155 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0095155

Cite This Page:

Northeastern University College of Science. "Our brains are hardwired for language." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 April 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140417191620.htm>.
Northeastern University College of Science. (2014, April 17). Our brains are hardwired for language. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 23, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140417191620.htm
Northeastern University College of Science. "Our brains are hardwired for language." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140417191620.htm (accessed August 23, 2014).

Share This




More Mind & Brain News

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Lost Brain Cells To Blame For Sleep Problems Among Seniors

Lost Brain Cells To Blame For Sleep Problems Among Seniors

Newsy (Aug. 21, 2014) According to a new study, elderly people might have trouble sleeping because of the loss of a certain group of neurons in the brain. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Do More Wedding Guests Make A Happier Marriage?

Do More Wedding Guests Make A Happier Marriage?

Newsy (Aug. 20, 2014) A new study found couples who had at least 150 guests at their weddings were more likely to report being happy in their marriages. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Charter Schools Alter Post-Katrina Landscape

Charter Schools Alter Post-Katrina Landscape

AP (Aug. 20, 2014) Nine years after Hurricane Katrina, charter schools are the new reality of public education in New Orleans. The state of Louisiana took over most of the city's public schools after the killer storm in 2005. (Aug. 20) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Researcher Testing on-Field Concussion Scanners

Researcher Testing on-Field Concussion Scanners

AP (Aug. 19, 2014) Four Texas high school football programs are trying out an experimental system designed to diagnose concussions on the field. The technology is in response to growing concern over head trauma in America's most watched sport. (Aug. 19) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins