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What does the field of linguistics tell us about how language is processed?

What does the field of linguistics tell us about how language is processed?

Language and the Brain

The human brain has features strongly associated with language. For almost all

of the 92% of people who are right-handed, language is strongly lateralized in

the left hemisphere. About half of the 8% of people who are left-handed still

have language left lateralized. So 96% of the population has language largely

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in the left hemisphere. Findings from studies with split-brain patients (see

Chapter 1) have indicated that the right hemisphere has only the most rudimentary

language abilities. It was once thought that the left hemisphere was

larger, particularly in areas taking part in language processing, and that this

greater size accounted for the greater linguistic abilities associated with the left

hemisphere. However, neuroimaging techniques have suggested that the differences

in size are negligible, and researchers are now looking to see whether

there are differences in neural connectivity or organization (Gazzaniga, Ivry, &

Mangun, 2002) in the left hemisphere. It remains largely a mystery what differences

between the left and the right hemispheres could account for why language

is so strongly left lateralized.

Certain regions of the left hemisphere are specialized for language, and

these are illustrated in Figure 12.1. These areas were initially identified in studies

of patients who suffered aphasias (losses of language function) as a consequence

of stroke. The first such area was discovered by Paul Broca, the French surgeon

who, in 1861, examined the brain of such a patient after the patient’s death (the

brain is still preserved in a Paris museum). This patient was basically incapable

of spoken speech, although he understood much of what was spoken to him.

He had a large region of damage in a prefrontal area that came to be known

as Broca’s area. As can be seen in Figure 12.1, it is next to the motor region that

controls the mouth. Shortly thereafter, Carl Wernicke, a German physician,

identified patients with severe deficits in understanding speech who had damage

in a region in the superior temporal cortex posterior to the primary auditory

cortex. This area came to be known as Wernicke’s area. Parietal regions

close to Wernicke’s area (the supramarginal gyrus and angular gyrus) also have

also been found to be important to language.

Two of the classic aphasias, now known as Broca’s aphasia and Wernicke’s

aphasia, are associated with damage to these two regions. A lateral view of

the left hemisphere. Some of

the brain areas implicated in

language are in boldface type.

(From Dronkers, Redfern, & Knight, 2000.)

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examples of the kinds of speech problems suffered by patients with these two

aphasias. The severity of the damage determines whether patients with Broca’s

aphasia will be unable to generate almost any speech (like Broca’s original

patient) or be capable of generating meaningful but ungrammatical speech.

Patients with Wernicke’s aphasia, in addition to having problems with comprehension,

sometimes produce grammatical but meaningless speech. Another

kind of aphasias is conduction aphasia; in this condition, patients suffer difficulty

in repeating speech and have problems producing spontaneous speech.

Conduction aphasia is sometimes associated with damage to the parietal regions

shown in Figure 12.1.

Although the importance of these left-cortical areas to speech is well documented

and there are many well-studied cases of aphasia resulting from damage

in these regions, it has become increasingly apparent that there is no simple

mapping of damaged areas onto types of aphasia. Current research has focused

on more detailed analyses of the deficits and of the regions damaged in each

aphasic patient.

Although there is much to understand, it is a fact that human evolution and

development have selected certain left-cortical regions as the preferred locations

for language. It is not the case, however, that language has to be left lateralized.

There are those left-handers who have language in the right hemisphere, and

young children who suffer left-brain damage may develop language in the right

hemisphere, in regions that are homologous to those depicted in Figure 12.1 for

the left hemisphere.

Language is preferentially localized in the left hemisphere in prefrontal

regions (Broca’s area), temporal regions (Wernicke’s area), and parietal

regions (supramarginal and angular gyri).

•The Field of Linguistics

The academic field of linguistics attempts to characterize the nature of language.

It is distinct from psychology in that it studies the structure of natural

languages rather than the way in which people process natural languages.

Despite this difference, the work from linguistics has been extremely influential

in the psychology of language. As we will see, concepts from linguistics play

an important role in theories of language processing. As noted in Chapter 1, the

influence from linguistics was important to the decline of behaviorism and the

rise of modern cognitive psychology

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