‘Universal language network’ identified in the brain
Published in Brain/Neurology.
This network had mostly been studied in English speakers.
The brain’s language processing network is mostly located in the left hemisphere. (Image credit: Christine Daniloff, MIT; iStock image)
Japanese, Italian, Ukrainian, Swahili, Tagalog and dozens of other spoken languages cause the same “universal language network” to light up in the brains of native speakers. This hub of language processing has been studied extensively in English speakers, but now neuroscientists have confirmed that the exact same network is activated in speakers of 45 different languages representing 12 distinct language families.
“This study is very foundational, extending some findings from English to a broad range of languages,” senior author Evelina Fedorenko, an associate professor of neuroscience at MIT and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, said in a statement(opens in new tab).
“The hope is that now that we see that the basic properties seem to be general across languages, we can ask about potential differences between languages and language families in how they are implemented in the brain, and we can study phenomena that don’t really exist in English,” Fedorenko said. For example, speakers of “tonal” languages, such as Mandarin, convey different word meanings through shifts in their tone, or pitch; English isn’t a tonal language, so it might be processed slightly differently in the brain.
The study, published Monday (July 18) in the journal Nature Neuroscience(opens in new tab), included two native speakers of each language, who underwent brain scans as they performed various cognitive tasks. Specifically, the team scanned the participants’ brains using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which tracks the flow of oxygenated blood through the brain. Active brain cells require more energy and oxygen, so fMRI provides an indirect measure of brain cell activity.