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Language Comprehension and Syntactic Processing

By: Sucharita Desu

Have you ever wondered how you are able to talk to other people? How are you able to understand what the other person says? How are you able to understand a certain language? Well, the simple answer is that it is because of the brain. But what does that even mean?

As you may already know, the brain is a complex structure. The various parts of the brain are all responsible for different functions in our body and are used every day. You may also have heard that each of your two hemispheres are responsible for specific functions. This is known as lateralization. Language is lateralized as you grow up, meaning during your childhood language-related capabilities, like comprehension, are located on both your right and left hemisphere. For adults, language is most likely to be localized in the left hemisphere, if you are right-handed. If you are left-handed, language may be localized in either the right or left hemisphere. It is important to note that damage to any of your hemispheres during your childhood could lead to different localizations of language or deficits in your language capabilities.

One of the structures in the brain involved in language and speech is the Wernicke’s area located in the temporal lobe. This area is responsible for comprehension of speech, and thereby language. Much like any other part of the brain, damaging this area may result in comprehension issues. Depending on the level of damage, how much your comprehension is affected will vary. Another structure in the brain involved in language and speech is the Broca’s area in the frontal lobe. This area is responsible for speech production. The neural circuits around this area are needed for movements related to speaking, such as moving your tongue and mouth. These circuits are also needed to be able to use grammar and find the correct words to express yourself. Damage to this area or the surrounding neurons may result in varied levels of speech issues (it depends on the level of damage). However, you will still be able to understand others.

Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area work together with the motor cortex when you’re conversing with people to allow you to understand what they’re saying and respond to them accordingly.

**NOTE: Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area are in both hemispheres of the brain.

FUN FACT! Did you know that the visual cortex responds to spoken words for those who are blind from birth? Since they do not have visual input, neuroplasticity allows language processing areas in the brain to use parts of the visual cortex for additional support/assistance. Essentially, neurons in the visual cortex may change their function or take on more functions to better work for the individual. The visual cortex might also be involved in recognizing written words for some children.

Our ability to learn and understand languages also comes from inborn mechanisms. According to evolutionary psychologists, humans can learn any language they are exposed to at birth, including sign language. This innate ability allows us to learn, remember and speak languages, perceive our environment, respond with universal emotions, and bond with others. As they are exposed to language, babies can pick up the various characteristics of the language (whether they’re signs, intonations, words, etc.), hence learning to communicate with language. As you grow up, you may learn language differently, more consciously and purposefully, through practicing written and spoken phrases and words until you are proficient.

Language is a complex subject driven by various mechanisms in the brain and this is just the surface of how it works. To learn more, check out these videos:

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