Revision of Language and Neurolinguistics

What is Language

Mature language speakers have the ability to be creative, use recursive structures, recognise patterns and produce new sentences.

We define language as intentionality - it is more than signalling that a predator is nearby, or indicating the direction of flowers, it is expressing that your parents were poor but honest.


Linguistic competence and linguistic performance are two generally accepted splits of our understanding of language.


Grammar consists of:

  • Morphology
  • Phonology
  • Phonetics
  • Syntax
  • Semantics

and is a set of rules that allows speakers to express any proposition they can think of.

Each language has its own grammar, but they're very similar and interlinked. For instance it is far more common to see SOV, SVO and VSO structures than to see OSV or OVS. Similarly with negation it is most common to see S neg aux V or S aux neg V, rather than S aux V neg.

Investigating Human Grammar

Our vocal system is highly specialised; it's built on top of existing survival mechanisms, but highly developed (much more so than in any other animal). For instance we have much less fat, and more muscle, in our vocal tract and certain abdominal areas.

Animal Language Attempts

There have been many attempts to teach animals language, or to study animal communication systems.

For instance bees have quite structured and complex systems of communication for expressing how far away flowers are, or which way the hive is. But these are used solely for signalling - there is no capacity for creativity.

Similarly vervet monkeys have many many different noises for different predators, but their communication is still limited to signalling.

All of these communication systems are survival based and fixed.

Birds can be taught human words, and can repeat them at will or on command, but have never been able to fully pick up syntax and string words together grammatically - they've also never picked up nearly as many words as a human child.

Chimps as well can be taught human language; even those who have been exposed to a signing 'parent' chimp from birth never pick up more than 50 or so words, compared to the thousands of words a 5 year old has in their vocabulary.

Structure of the Brain

The structure of the brain can be easily split up for our purposes into the cerebral cortex, the language areas, the corpus callosum, and everything else.

Investigating the Brain

Language lateralisation does exist, and the language areas in the brain have been discovered to be in the left pennsylvanian region of the cortex, and Broca and Wernicke have done work studying aphasia patients to determine more information.

Machines for Brain Investigation

There are many methods for investigating the brain - we can use CAT scans, PET scans, MRI scans, fMRI scans, NIRS or ERP for physically imaging the brain and determining areas of activity.

Experiments for Brain Investigation

Dichotic listening can be used to study what happens when input is given to different halves of the brain, and hence can tell us about the activity in those hemispheres.