Language is one of the  pillars  of the  human intellect.  It is the  principal  means  whereby individuals formulate  thoughts  and convey  them  to  others. It plays a role in analyzing  the world, , in reasoning , solving problems, and planning  actions. It allows us to convey memories  of the past  and beliefs  about the future, to engage others about events that have not taken place, and to express the relation between events.

   Language is an indispensable part of human culture, without   which jurisprudence , commerce, science  and other  human endeavours  could not exist  in the forms we know  them. It is an object of beauty   in its own  right. . A combination  of semantic and artistic force can make writings such as Shakespeare’s sonnets  , the definitive  statements   of  spirituality , jurisprudence  , or personal love for   a culture or an individual.

   Language is vital  to  individual  success , and  diseases  affecting  language can  cripple a person  in his or her  family   or social  group. Ongoing  research is making progress  in understanding language ,its neural basis   and  how to  successfully  intervene  in the course of language  disorders.

 The language code

   Modern linguistics has taught  us that , in its essence ,  language is a special kind  of code. A “standard” code consists of a set of symbols  that can be connected    to  the words and phrases  in a language. When  we crack  a code , we understand an  encoded  message  because we understand the language  that  we have translated  the code into.  Natural language is a different sort of code , because its forms are related   to meaning  directly.

  The forms of language are simple  words , sentences, intonation , and other “representations”. Words refer to objects , actions, properties   and logical  connections. Sentences  relate words to   each  other  to  depict  events  and  states  of affairs  in the conversation or   whether a sentence is  a statement or a question. Language is a complex code  because all these types of representations interact  to  determine the meaning  of each  sentence in each  context. 

Processing language 

   Language processors activate in these linguistic  representations in speaking , understanding , reading  and writing , in a remarkably fast   and accurate way. For instance,  when  we speak,  we select  words in accordance  with  what  we think  our listener  will understand.  We activate the sounds for each word. We construct a  syntactic  structure  to relate the words  to each other ,  and an intonational  contour  to  convey  the syntax.

   All this information  is translated into movements  of the mouth, jaw,  tongue, palate, larynx  and  other   articulators  that  are regulated  on a millisecond-by-millisecond  basis,  so that  we produce about three words per second or one sound every   tenth of a second on average.

 Watching the brain speak  and listen 

   Scientists have tried  for over a century  to understand  how brain learns,  stores , and processes  language.  The task is  difficult   because there are no  animals  that have symbol systems  as reach  as language. Therefore,  for a long  time, information  about how  the brain processed language   could only   come from the study  of the effects on language  of neurological   disease in humans. In  the past  decade, exciting  new  techniques  have allowed  us to picture   the normal brain  at  work   processing  language . What  used to take decades to  learn, as scientists waited for opportunity to  examine  the brains  of patients  at post-mortem, can now be approached in months using positron   emission  tomography , special  analyses of  electroencephalograms  , functional magnetic resonance imaging , magneto encephalography   and other  tools.

Left-brain /Right-brain 

  As is true  for every other  functional  ability , parts of the brain specialize in  language. The brain has two roughly   identical  halves-the left and the right hemispheres.  We now know that  there are small  differences  in the sizes  of some regions  in the two  hemispheres.  These differences  may  form  the basis   for the first major brain  specialization  for language-lateralization  of language to the left  hemisphere.

   In about 98 percent of right-handers, the left hemisphere  accomplishes most  language processing  functions. In non-right  handers (which include left-handed  and ambidextrous  people)   language  functions  are far more likely to  involve the right hemisphere . There is some evidence  that  lateralization  differs in males  and females.

     Within  the dominant  hemisphere

  An we be more specific about exactly where in this language region particular  language operations are carried out ?  Where do  we activate the sounds of specific words , or compute  the meaning  of a sentence  ?  The  jury  is out  on this question . Since the earliest investigations into  the topic , some scientists  have thought that  the language region works  more or less as a unit, while other have  sworn by  the idea that  the individual language operators are  localized in specific parts of this region.

 Starting the engine and driving the system

  The language system is connected  to  other intellectual  and motor systems. People use language to inform others , to ask  for information, to get things done, etc. The mechanisms that  trigger language  use  require  motivation  and  arousal.

  Functional  neuro-imaging studies have provided  strong evidence  that  areas  such  as the frontal lobes  are structures deep in the brain   become active during many language tasks. Perhaps these structures  are  related  to  the level of arousal  needed to  activate language processors.

 Diseases affecting  language

  Although  the deprivation of any  function is onerous , diseases that  affect cognition are  devastating to humans  in a particular  way. Not being able to communicate  thoughts  efficiently  can  cut a person off  from his or her livelihood   and family  and have immense effects  on emotional  state  and social position. Language can be  impaired   by  sudden events  such  as  stroke or  head injuries , insidiously  progressive  conditions such  as  Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases  , or developmental  disorders as happens in  dyslexia.

  We now are able to  make highly  specific diagnoses of what  language processors are affected in a particular language disorder , and recent work has begun  to  demonstrate that targeting these specific impairments can  improve language functioning. As we know more about  the brain mechanisms involved , medical therapies such  as  those that improve  attention will  also  become more tailored   to remediation  of particular  language disorders.

  The future holds   much  promise for applying our rapidly-accruing knowledge regarding the  neural basis of language to  improving the quality of life of language -impaired individuals.

 Dr. Caplan is Associate Neurologist at  Massachusetts general  Hospital

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