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Foreign languages translation or learning languages online. Mobile phone or smartphone with dictionary app on the screen.
Foreign languages translation or learning languages online. Mobile phone or smartphone with dictionary app on the screen.

Six Brain Regions Control Language — But We’re Not Sure How

We’re learning more about human language but it remains, in its way, mysterious

Neuroscientist Saima Malik-Moraleda told The Scientist, recently that six main regions of the brain respond to language tasks but not to, say, math tasks.

translation, business, and technology concept - male translator or businessman with laptop computer thinking at office over greeting words in different foreign languages

Using fMRI data, a recent comprehensive survey — of which she is a co-author — examined two native speakers of each of 45 languages while the speaker was performing either a linguistic or non-linguistic specific task. From the interview,

SM-M: But the variability that we saw across languages was lower than the variability that we see across participants, meaning that the language network seems to be incredibly stable and similar across languages.

One of the questions that cognitive neuroscientists who particularly study language wonder is: “Why do we have six areas? What does each area do?” We haven’t quite figured out the function of each separate area. We know these areas are very functionally integrated and work closely together, but there’s a lot of debate as to what the function of each different area is. So, potentially, if we can leverage the variability within languages, maybe that would be a way where scanning more participants would allow us to understand even more about how the language network functions.

Andy Carstens, “Same Parts of the Brain Control Processing of Dozens of Languages” at The Scientist (July 21, 2022) The paper is open access.

Of course the same parts of the brain would process other languages. What would be the alternative?

Some fun (or thought-provoking) facts about languages

➤ How many languages are there in the world? We are always finding new ones but, at last count, 7151 (Ethnologue.) Twenty-three of them are spoken by more than half the world’s population. The five most widely spoken languages are (in order) English, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, and French. No known human group lacks a language.

➤ How many languages are endangered? According to Ethnologue, 3,045. These languages, which had few speakers to begin with, are overwhelmed by languages with many speakers and mass electronic communications. UNESCO estimates that over half of the world’s languages will disappear over the next century for this reason.

Could automated translation help preserve these languages? Modern translation tools can certainly help make information available in an endangered language. But a majority language would still likely be needed outside the community.

➤ Are some languages harder to learn — as an adult — than others? An adult English speaker, not surprisingly, will usually have better luck with a closely related language like Dutch than an unrelated one like Chinese or Finnish.

But it’s not true that adults are hopeless at new languages compared to small children. Rather, the adult’s issues are all different. The small child has no language so he is highly motivated to learn one, if only to learn other things. The adult has a huge body of existing information that must now be re-expressed. But the adult also has the advantage of many years of learning how to learn. That’s why it’s hard to compare.

➤ Are some languages very different from all the rest? If so, one example would be Piraha, about which Tom Wolfe (1930–2018) wrote in The Kingdom of Speech (2016):

Piraha has fascinated linguists for a number of reasons. It is spoken by only a few hundred people – all members of this remote Northwestern Brazil tribe. All those people have managed to completely avoid adopting other languages, including Portuguese.

Even more baffling: The Piraha language doesn’t appear to use numbers. It has no word to express the concept of “one” or any other specific number, according to 2008 research by yet another MIT-lead team. There are words for abstract quantities like “some” and “more” but not finite numbers like “two” or “three.”

This finding toppled other long-held beliefs in linguistics – namely, that human brains are naturally wired to count and that numbers are an inherent part of language. Instead, it appears more likely that counting is an invention of human culture. There’s still much to learn about this niche language. Although the 2016 MIT study was the most extensive to date on Piraha, analyzing 1,100 translated sentences, deeper research is required to say with certainty that recursion doesn’t exist.

The strongest statement researchers could make: “It’s plausible.”

Jake Schild, “Piraha: Brazil’s Extraordinary Language” at ULG’s Language Solutions Blog

In short, we don’t know about any such language for sure.

➤ Can all languages ultimately express the same ideas? Setting aside Piraha, about which there is controversy, if Noam Chomsky (1928–) is right about universal grammar, all languages should have the ability to express ideas that the human mind can conceive. In many cases, people simply import the needed words from other languages.

Language remains mysterious because it is bound up with consciousness, which is still, as the philosophers say, a Hard Problem.

You may also wish to read: Why linguist Noam Chomsky is a great scientist of our era. He singlehandedly rid linguistics of a stultifying (and technically mistaken) behaviorism. Chomsky’s insight that language is an in-born “organ” unique to humans is of obvious relevance to our understanding of why humans are exceptional. (Michael Egnor)

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Six Brain Regions Control Language — But We’re Not Sure How