Language: How Does it Work?

When a person thinks about language they typically think of it in terms of basic word choice and grammar; however, language isn’t just that it’s much more and we as humans rarely recognize the complexities that goes into language. Language is a function of the peculiar structure of the human brain. Several areas of the brain have been identified with linguistic skills. In these areas, the human verbal tract is able to make a wide range of sounds. These sounds over-time have allowed us to form language and has enabled us to communicate. This language and communication can be attributed to the fifty regions in the human brain that are involved in the process of forming a language. These regions are controlling the complex movements needed to produce speech; it works to translate sound waves into a neural activity in the brain so that is can be heard. Then our brains manipulate the symbols that make up the thoughts and ideas of our minds to produce reason. All of these adaptations of the individual are all significant for full language functions. However, people with brain damage in specific areas of the language tract have difficulties with very specific aspects of language. This implies that language functions are a highly compartmentalized process. Sounds alone are not enough to create meaning but the tools that have developed in our own brains has given us the ability to produce and understand language.

In many animals that use sound for communication, the brain is lateralized, placing the control of sound production in one hemisphere of the brain (usually the left); “…this takes place quite strongly in songbirds and somewhat in monkeys, dolphins, and mice…” (Trafton). The phenomenon of lateralization is extremely strong in humans, and in the vast majority language areas are concentrated in the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere controls language in only about “…3% of right-handers and 19% of left-handers, and another 68% of left-handers have language circuitry in both hemispheres…” (Trafton). There are two major areas of the human brain that are responsible for language: Broca’s area, which is thought to be mostly responsible for language production and Wernicke’s area, which is believed to be responsible for language processing. Other areas involved in language are those surrounding the Sylvian fissure. The Sylvian fissure is the line separating the portions of the brain. In general, “…the areas that control language would be adjacent to one another if the human brain was laid out as a flat sheet” (Trafton).

In Broca’s area there are thought to be two divided areas of processing. One is involved in language, and the other is involved in responding to numerous demanding cognitive tasks. The exact shapes and locations of the borders between the two regions vary from person to person. The general-function region of Broca’s area appears to be part of a larger network “…sometimes called the multiple demand network, which is active when the brain is tackling a challenging task that requires a great deal of focus” (Trafton). This “network” is distributed across frontal and parietal lobes in both hemispheres of the brain, and all of its components appear to communicate with one another. The language-selective section of Broca’s area also appears to be part of a larger network devoted to language processing, spread throughout the brain’s left hemisphere. (Trafton)

When people experience damage to Broca’s area or its surroundings, their disorder is called Broca’s aphasia. As predicted by the dominant role of Broca’s area in language production, “…Broca’s aphasics produce slow, halting speech that is rarely grammatical” (Age). Typical Broca’s “…aphasics eliminate inflections such as -ed and words not central to the meaning of the sentence, such as the and and…” (Age). They generally retain their vocabularies and have no difficulty naming objects or performing other meaning-related tasks. Overall, they can deduce the meanings of sentences from general knowledge; however, they cannot understand sentences whose syntax is essential to their meaning. Persons who suffer with Broca’s aphasia are fully aware of their difficulties and the rest of their faculties are unimpaired.

Broca’s aphasics reveal a great deal about the way our brains process language. In Broca’s area it is seen that it is central to the correct processing and production of grammatical information. However, some Broca’s aphasics can retain certain grammatical abilities such as the ability to process types of syntax. Moreover, the difficulty that Broca’s aphasics experience in actual production of speech is also unfathomable; a problem that affected grammar exclusively would not necessarily “…create difficulty in speaking – only in speaking grammatically” (Age). As a result, Broca’s area can positively be concluded as a critical area of grammar and language, but there may be other areas in the brain with overlapping functions, and it may not be the base of all grammatical processing power. (Age)

When people experience damage to Wernicke’s area the result is a disorder called Wernicke’s aphasia. Wernicke’s aphasia is in some ways the opposite of Broca’s aphasia. Wernicke’s aphasics are able to produce grammatical sentences, but they are often nonsensical and include invented words (Age). “Wernicke’s aphasics show few signs of understanding others’ speech, and have difficulty naming objects; they commonly produce the names of related objects or words that sound similar to the object’s name” (Age). The symptoms experienced by Wernicke’s aphasics support the idea that Wernicke’s area is related to the correct processing of others’ communication. It also implies that Wernicke’s area could be involved in the retrieval of words from the mental dictionary. (Age)

Other types of aphasia noted in brain-damaged patients produce even stranger results. If Wernicke’s and Broca’s area are disconnected, patients cannot repeat sentences they have just heard. “This implies that perhaps Wernicke’s area, which has processed the sentence heard, is unable to communicate it to Broca’s area for repetition” (How). In another type, Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas remain connected but cannot communicate with the rest of the brain. These patients can only repeat sentences but they cannot speak spontaneously. This proposes the hypothesis that Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas are doing their jobs, but they are not receiving input about what to talk about from the rest of the brain and are therefore paralyzed except when others produce speech. (How)

Language is a human ability that has confused many through-out the times. However, after discovering that cadavers could be used for researching brain damage and what those damages affected in the life of the cadaver, we have been able to discover the inner functions that language deals with. This has allowed researchers to diagnosis the areas of the brain that perform language tasks. These sections are called Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area and are typically found in the left hemisphere; although, it is possible to be in the right hemisphere or both hemispheres as well. These two territories in the brain work together to process, interpret, and respond to the vibrations in the air that we can interpret as language. This is how language works in the human brain, and this is how we have been able to communicate and survive as a species.

 

 

Work Cited

“Age and Brain.” 2000. Think Quest. Referred to: http://library.thinkquest.org/C004367/la4.shtml

Trafton, Anne. “Brain’s Language Center has two Roles.” MIT News. October 2012. Referred to: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/brocas-area-multiple-roles-1016.html

“How Does Language Work?” October 2013. Philosophy Now. Referred to: http://philosophynow.org/issues/90/How_Does_Language_Work

 

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7 thoughts on “Language: How Does it Work?

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