"Oh Say Can You Say"
The Brain and Language
Birds do it. Bees do it. So do dolphins, monkeys, apes and humans. Contents of this Page


You know what I am talking about...communicate! That's right, all these animals can communicate. They can exchange information with one another. Although these animals can communicate, do they have LANGUAGE?

Some scientists have argued that language is what sets humans apart from all other animals. Other researchers wonder if humans are really the only species with language. Certainly other animals communicate...bees have the ability to communicate with other bees using their special "dance." However, human language is more than just communication. Humans use symbols that have meaning.

It is possible that apes have the ability to learn and communicate with language. However, not all scientists believe that apes have "real" language. Apes cannot talk because they do not have the necessary anatomy in their mouths and throats to speak. However, they apparently can learn to use symbols to communicate.
Human Larynx (voice box)

Patients with speech problems gave early researchers the first clues about how the brain is involved with language. The loss of the ability to speak is called "aphasia." The ancient Greeks noticed that brain damage could cause aphasia. Centuries later, in 1836, Marc Dax described a group of patients who could not speak properly. Dax reported that all of these patients had damage to the left side of their brain. A quarter century later in 1861, Paul Broca described a patient who could say only one word: "tan." For this reason, Broca called this patient "Tan." When Tan died, Broca examined his brain and found that there was damage to part of the left frontal cortex. This part of the brain has come to be known as "Broca's Area."

In 1876, Karl Wernicke found that damage to a different part of the brain also caused language problems. This area of the brain ("Wernicke's Area"), was further back and lower in the brain compared to Broca's area. In fact, Wernicke's area is in the posterior part of the temporal lobe. Broca's area and Wernicke's area are connected by a bundle of nerve fibers called the arcuate fasciculus. Damage to the arcuate fasciculus causes a disorder called conduction aphasia. People with conduction aphasia can understand language, but their speech does not make sense and they cannot repeat words.

Broca's Area (red)
Image used with permission
of Digital Slice of Life

Diagram of pathways
involved with language

Speaking the Written WordSpeaking the Heard Word
To speak a word that is read, information must first get to the primary visual cortex. From the primary visual cortex, information is transmitted to the posterior speech area, including Wernicke's area. From Wernicke's area, information travels to Broca's area, then to the Primary Motor Cortex. To speak a word that is heard, information must first get to the primary auditory cortex. From the primary auditory cortex, information is transmitted to the posterior speech area, including Wernicke's area. From Wernicke's area, information travels to Broca's area, then to the Primary Motor Cortex.

The language problems associated with damage to Broca's and Wernicke's area are quite different from one another:
Damage to Broca's Area
(Broca's aphasia)
  • prevents a person from producing speech
  • person can understand language
  • words are not properly formed
  • speech is slow and slurred.
Damage to Wernicke's Area
(Wernicke's aphasia)
  • loss of the ability to understand language
  • person can speak clearly, but the words that are put together make no sense. This way of speaking has been called "word salad" because it appears that the words are all mixed up like the vegetables in a salad.

In most people (97%), both Broca's area and Wernicke's area are found in only the left hemisphere of the brain.

In the early 1950s, the famous neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and his colleague Herbert Jasper, described how electrical stimulation of certain areas of the brain blocked language. These neurosurgeons were able to perform these studies asking their patients questions during the surgical procedure. More recently (late 1980s), Dr. George Ojemann at the University of Washington has used electrical stimulation experiments to show that there can be a large difference in the brain area that is important for language from person to person. Nevertheless, the results of these studies agree with the earlier findings of Broca and Wernicke.

In 1960, another technique was discovered that allowed researchers to study the brain mechanisms of language. This method, called the Wada Test, uses a fast acting anesthetic called sodium amytal (amobarbital) to put one hemisphere of the brain asleep. The sodium amytal is injected into the right or left carotid artery. The right artery supplies the right cerebral hemisphere and the left artery supplies the left cerebral hemisphere. Therefore, either the right or left hemisphere can be "put to sleep" temporarily. If the left hemisphere is put to sleep in people who have language ability in the left hemisphere, then when asked to speak, they cannot. However, if the right hemisphere is put to sleep, then these people will be able to speak and answer questions.

Studies performed in people who have received electroconvulsive shock treatment have also confirmed that language is found most often on the left side.

Language can also be studied using brain imaging techniques. Positron emission tomography studies show that many of the expected areas of the brain have increased blood flow during language tasks, but there are also areas on both hemispheres that are activated. Therefore, it appears that even the hemisphere that is not dominant for language (usually the right side) has some involvement in language. Actually, people have problems communicating the emotions involved with language when they have damage to the right side of the brain in the area where on the left side it is used for language. This disorder is called an "aprosodia."


More about Aphasia:

More about the brain mechanisms of language:

More about non-human primate language:

They said it!

"Animals talk to each other, of course. There can be no question about that; but I suppose there are very few people who can understand them."
--- Mark Twain, (in What Stumped the Blue-jays)

"Speech is the representation of the mind, and writing is the representation of speech."
--- Aristotle

Did you know?

Paul Broca published over 500 books and articles. (Source: Finger, S., Minds behind the brain: a history of the pioneers and their discoveries, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)


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