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Cognitive Neuroscience. What is language? The fundamentals of word knowledge. Language and the Brain. Since the 19 th C great progress in our understanding of (a) brain and (b) language But little progress regarding the relationship between brain and language

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cognitive neuroscience

Cognitive Neuroscience

What is language?

The fundamentals of word knowledge

language and the brain
Language and the Brain
  • Since the 19th C great progress in our understanding of (a) brain and (b) language
  • But little progress regarding the relationship between brain and language

brain cognitive neuroscience language

Why not?

  • No animal model
  • The more “interesting” aspects are distant from stimulus and response
why ask what
Why ask “what”?
  • A.D. 98-135: Celsus believed that the tongue, not the brain, was the source of speech disorders -> treatment: tongue massages and gargles
  • 1657: William Harvey was treated for his speech loss with a cut in the frenulum of the tongue (to loosen it); cupping, leeching, bleeding were accepted treatments for aphasia into the 19th C
  • The localization of function can only be as good as the theory of the function
language as an instinct
Language as an Instinct

“Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works. Instead, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains” (Pinker, 1994).

Chomsky argued that children are innately equipped with a plan common to the grammars of all languages—a Universal Grammar.

“No one would take seriously the proposal that the human organism learns through experience to have arms rather than wings….human cognitive systems…prove to be no less marvelous and intricate…Why, then should we not study…language…as we study some complex bodily organ?” (Chomsky, 1975).

language as an instinct arguments
Language as an instinct: Arguments
  • Develops spontaneously, without instruction, without awareness of the underlying “rules”
  • Same developmental milestones across languages
  • Cannot be reduced to a general capacity to use symbols, need, intelligence, general characteristics of human information processing

* Critical periods

critical periods
Critical Periods

In vision (but not chess) exposure during a critical period is crucial for normal development; similarly for language:

(1) children not exposed to language before adolescence fail to acquire it later in life

  • adult/child differences in language acquisition

Suggests a biological process with its own “clock”

critical periods creoles and pidgins
Critical Periods: Creoles and Pidgins
  • Adult immigrants (without instruction) -> pidgins


no consistent word order, no prefixes/suffixes, no tense marking, simple clauses only


  • Children of immigrants exposed only to pidgins -> creoles


bona fide languages, standardized word order, grammatical markers

How can we explain this?

-Innate language acquisition blueprint

genetic blueprint learning
Genetic Blueprint + Learning
  • Genetic blueprint:
    • Neural/cognitive machinery to organize/represent language stimuli in specific ways
    • The same across languages (Universal Grammar)
  • Learning:
    • The characteristics of the specific language in the environment are learned
linguistics and psycholinguistics
Linguistics and Psycholinguistics

Language knowledge:

  • phonology
  • morphology
  • syntax
  • semantics
  • orthography
  • Our knowledge of the phonemes of the language and their legal combinations

phoneme: smallest unit of language sound that serves to distinguish one word from another: pot/pod



Some knowledge is language universal:

all languages have CV syllables

Some is language-specific:

English: blin /*bnin

Arabic: *blin/ bnin

  • Our knowledge of the meaningful units of the language and how they can be legally combined in words

morpheme: the smallest meaningful unit of language




  • Our knowledge of how words can be combined to express meaning

the student praised the teacher

the teacher praised the student

*praised the student the teacher

linguistics and psycholinguistics1
Linguistics and Psycholinguistics

Language knowledge:

  • phonology
  • morphology
  • syntax
  • semantics: knowledge of word meanings
  • orthography: knowledge of word spellings
language knowledge
Language Knowledge

Examples to illustrate that our language knowledge is:

  • Detailed
  • Systematic
  • Abstract
  • Unconscious

What’s the plural of:





How do you do this?

  • look up
  • rules

Look up?

  • necessary for irregulars (child-child;

foot-feet, mouse-mice)

Why not look up everything?

What’s the plural of:




How might the rule be stated?

{singular} + /s/ -> {plural}

/k æ t/ + /s/ -> /k æ t s/

How well does it work?










How about? banjo










Revised rule:

for singular ending in /t/, /p/, /f/, /k/:

{singular} + /s/ -> plural

for singular ending in /d/, /b/, /v/, /g/ or vowel:

{singular} + /z/ -> plural



  • Doesn’t explain why there are two different plural sounds
  • Doesn’t explain the grouping of ending sounds with plural forms

Note: only required for plurals (e.g., days/mace; sighs/mace; dens/dense)


If we consider each phoneme as a set of features, the grouping becomes non-arbitrary

Feature dimensions:

-place of articulation (placement of tongue, lips, etc.)

-manner of articulation (manner in which air is released)

-voicing (+ or – movement of vocal folds)


+ voice-voice

/b/ /p/

/g/ /k/

/d/ /d/

/v/ /f/

vowels, /n/, /m/, /l/

New rule:

If final sound is + voice add /z/ (+voice)

If final sound is – voice add /s/ (-voice)

question formation
Question Formation

How do we generate questions from statements?

the boy is crazy  is the boy crazy?

the girl can sing  can the girl sing?


Prepose the first auxiliary verb

question formation1
Question Formation

The boy who is smoking is crazy 

*Is the boy who smoking is crazy?

The boy who is smoking is crazy 

Is the boy who is smoking crazy?

New rule:

Prepose the auxiliary following the subject

noun phrase.

question formation2
Question Formation


Verb Phrase

(subject) Noun Phrase

is crazy


Verb Phrase

who is smoking

The boy

sentence comprehension
Sentence comprehension

The spy saw the cop with the binoculars.

Who had the binoculars?

  • the cop has binoculars
  • the spy has binoculars
sentence comprehension1
Sentence Comprehension

Where’s the difference?

-not in the stimulus

-rather, in the mental representation of the sentence’s


language knowledge1
Language Knowledge

What is the nature of our language knowledge?

  • Detailed
  • Complex
  • Abstract
  • Systematic
  • Unconscious
pb video
PB video
  • Boy will fell
  • Crooked in the chair
  • Boy get k,k,..cooks to give a /g ou l/
  • Water sink
  • Water is fall and water down to floors
  • Floors is wet there
  • Woman cleaning of…like plate….like washing
word knowledge
Word Knowledge

What do we know when we know a word?

  • meaning (semantics)
  • grammatical properties (gender, grammatical category, etc.) (syntax/morphology)
  • sound (phonology)
  • spelling (orthography)
word knowledge1
Word Knowledge

We can categorize our word knowledge in this way, but does the brain do so?

That is, although these kinds of information are certainly stored in the brain, are the distinctions respected in terms of the neural instantiation?

How can we know?????

  • different neural geographies revealed by selective impairment and/or selective activation
word knowledge2
Word Knowledge

Noun, plural +s

Luxurious sea-going



/y a t/

semantics phonology
  • R.G.B.
  • Caramazza & Hillis (1990)
    • 62-year-old, right handed
    • Retired personnel manager, high-school education
    • CVA 4 years prior to investigation
    • Left fronto-parietal infarct
    • Dense hemiplegia
r g b

percent correct

Aud word/pix match 100

Vis word/pix match 100

Aud/Vis word match 100

Oral reading 67

Oral naming-pix 62

Oral naming-tactile 64

r g b1

stimulus reading definition

RECORDS radio you play’em on a phonograph….can also mean notes you take and keep

GREY blue color of hair when you get old

SUBWAY bus you ride on them from one area to another…they have’em in NY and now we have one in Baltimore. Goes on tracks underground

QUILL feather they’re long an dhave a point…animals, porcupines have them

DOLLAR money a bill… a hundred cents

MOCCASINS shoes Indians used to wear them

CITRUS apple no, kind of fuit you get down south…like an orange

syntax phonology


Badecker, Miozzo & Zanuttini (1993)

  • Male, 24-yrs-old, 8 years of education
  • Suspected meningoencephalitis
  • Hypodensity in fronto-temporo-parietal regions
  • Fluent speech w/ word finding difficulties, good comprehension
anomia or tip of the tongue state
Anomia or tip-of the-tongue state
  • A raised platform on which a speaker may sit or stand

Task: -name 100 pix & 100 sentence completions

-when in an anomic state, asked to make a forced choice judgments of:

grammatical gender (masc/fem)

first letter (T/D)

word length XXXX/XXXXXX

last letter (S/M)

rhyming word

dante results
Dante: Results

Correct naming 56% with 88 anomic responses

Accuracy for forced choice queries on anomic trials:

Gender 98%

Word length 50%

First letter 53%

Last letter 47%

Rhyming word 48%

phonology orthography
Phonology/ Orthography

RGB (Caramazza & Hillis, 1990)

Aud word/pix match 100

Vis word/pix match 100

Aud/Vis word match 100

Oral reading 67

Oral naming-pix 62

Oral naming-tactile 64

Written naming* 94%

Writing to dictation* 94%

*no semantic errors

phonology orthography1
Phonology/ Orthography
  • Good phonology, poor orthography (and vice versa)

RCM (Hillis, Rapp & Caramazza, 1999)

Aud word/pix verification 100%

Vis word/pix verification 100%

Oral reading 97%

Oral naming-pix 100%

Written naming* 53%

Writing to dictation* 47%

*primarily semantic errors

word knowledge3
Word Knowledge

Noun, plural +s

Luxurious sea-going



/y a t/

dissociable aspects of word knowledge
Dissociable aspects of word knowledge
  • Knowledge types are represented in neural substrate in a manner such that they can be dissociated
  • Localization?