How the Brain Processes Language
Language is a system of words, gestures, and symbols used to convey meaning. It’s been the center of interest of many scientists since the discovery that language functions are related to brain tissue. Certain parts of the brain help process and decode the language, be it spoken or signed.
When it comes time to learn to read, the brain is already wired to look at a word and understand it. Grammar plays a considerable role in this process. It enables humans to express an action with one or more words.
The brain, a complex organ that controls and regulates every process within our body, unsurprisingly plays a crucial role in producing and understanding the language we use to communicate. But how it processes language is still an area that scientists continually research.
So exactly how does the brain process language? A brief anatomy lesson is to help further explain how the brain functions to produce and process language.
Ready? Let’s jump in!
Why is human language special?
Language is a human ability that distinguishes us from other animals. Unlike animals, humans have a formal structure for communicating. The human language requires us to create and use signals in a flexible way, which researchers claim to be the reason why language is specific to humans.
Animals have their own codes and sounds for communicating in times of danger, when finding food, and being willing to mate. However, they communicate through repetitive instrumental acts that have no structure.
On the other hand, humans have a formal communication structure with two distinctive human language characteristics, as identified by Prof. Mark Pagel. These two distinct characteristics are compositional and referential.
Compositional provides a limitless capacity for generating new sentences as humans combine and recombine their sets of words into their subject, verb, and object roles. It lets the speakers express their thoughts in sentences that consist of subjects, verbs, and objects with recognition of the past, present, and future tenses.
Referential means that speakers use language in exchanging specific information about people, objects, locations, or actions.
Additionally, humans have a combinatorial communication system where they combine together two or more signals. Combining signals is crucial to the human language’s expressive power.
The system is also more efficient than the non-combinatorial system. However, the combinatorial system is rare. It is only applicable to species – which is none other than humans – with enough socio-cognitive capacity to engage in ostensive communication.
How is our brain processing language?
How the brain processes language is a complex process, so we will break it down to sentence processing to make it easy to understand.
The sentence processing differentiates three linguistic processing phases after the initial phase of acoustic analysis. Here are the phases of sentence processing:
- Phase 1: Local Phrase Structure
Local Phrase Structure is the first sentence-level processing phase with no grammar restrictions and is based on word category information. Word category information is proposed to be a guide in the build-up of sentence structures.
- Phase 2: Syntactic and Semantic Relations
The second phase involves the computation of the relations between the verb and its arguments. This computation leads to the assignment of thematic roles (who is doing what to whom) for the compatible interpretation. Once there is compatible interpretation, comprehension takes place.
For example, it is easy to interpret the animate noun in a sentence (John cuts twigs) because the person is likely the actor.
- Phase 3: Integration of Information
Phase three happens when a sentence’s semantic and syntactic information are not easily mapped. This phase involves final consideration and integrations of different information types, which include context or word knowledge.
The above description of the language process is only the basic process of the brain to process language and comprehend it.
What part of the brain processes language?
In the left hemisphere of the brain are two central regions responsible for language and speech: the Broca area and the Wernicke area, named after the men who discovered the function of these parts of the brain. These scientists figured out how the brain functions years ago without the help of monitors and technology.
Nowadays, EEGs and other brain wave tests aid scientists in finding out a bit more about how the brain operates. Allie from Neuro Transmissions explains more.
The Broca area is in the brain’s frontal lobe and is responsible for language processing. Pierre Paul Broca provided the first anatomical proof of what part of the brain was responsible for what.
Neuroscientists say the Broca area can understand language through memories, meanings, and emotions. Interestingly, the Broca area increases activity when a person anticipates a grammatical error.
The Wernicke area is not too far from the Broca area of the brain. Two scientists studied the Wernicke area of the brain, Carl Wernicke and Norman Geschwind.
During the 19th century, Wernicke concluded that this area of the brain is decoded where the meaning of language is decoded. Later, Norman Geschwind expanded on this idea and found this area of the brain where perception, comprehension, and other language characteristics are decrypted.
The motor cortex is the neuro network that connects the brain’s left and right half. Without the motor cortex, a person would have a tough time associating words with speech. The right side of the brain is where a human’s visual and spacial centers are.
When a person sees a word on a piece of paper (preferably your favorite paperback book!), it then travels through this neural network where the two language centers decode it. Researchers now believe that the motor cortex could be to blame if a person is having trouble with language and speech.
How does the human brain produce language?
The human brain produces language by learning the melody of the language. Learning the melody is the very first step that even babies take in language development by listening to other people speaking.
Research on newborn babies’ cry melody showed that babies are born already knowing the sound and melody of their mother tongue. This knowledge allows them to speak by following the melodic pattern of the language. The babies may not be able to talk with words, but the crying shows a certain melody.
The study presented the data gathered from German and French newborn babies. They discovered that French babies show a cry melody that has low intensity at first and then slowly rises while the German babies have a high-intensity cry at the beginning and then fall.
The researchers found that the cry melodies resemble the French and German languages’ speech stress patterns. In the German language, Germans stress words at the beginning. In contrast, the French language has word stress at the end.
They further explained that babies learn language about three months before birth when their ears are already developed. They hear their mother’s voice and other people speaking. This proves that listening is the first step in learning and producing language.
Other parts of the brain will play their part in understanding words and sentences and in producing sounds. Language and communication skills will further develop by engaging in speaking and reading.
Our brain is an amazing organ. You don’t have to worry about developing language and communication skills. Each time you learn and study, you wire your brain to learn faster and become better at acquiring knowledge and skills.
If you are worried about your language development, there are different ways to enhance your language learning and communication skills. Reading regularly is an excellent way to develop your communication skills.
Reading is a high-speed activity for the mind, but the more you practice, the better you get.
Regardless of age, improving yourself to be more competitive in the working industry is better.
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