Complex language is often considered a feature that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal world. Some theories claim that the language center of the brain evolved specifically to help us with this particularly complex task, but according to new research, this is not the case.
Looking at how both adults and children learn languages, researchers were able to show that the brain system used to learn a language has more than just this function. The area is employed in various learning activities and didn't just evolve ad hoc in our species. The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Our conclusion that language is learned in such ancient general-purpose systems contrasts with the long-standing theory that language depends on innately-specified language modules found only in humans," the study's senior investigator Professor Michael T. Ullman, from Georgetown University School of Medicine, said in a statement.
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The researchers used results from multiple studies that involved a total of 665 participants comprising either children learning their native language or adults learning a foreign language. Language learning in children was strongly correlated with the areas of the brain linked to procedural memory, responsible for things like learning how to drive or riding a bike. In adults, language was first correlated with declarative memory, which helps us memorize things like shopping lists or what we ate last night, and only subsequently shifted to procedural memory.
The correlations were described as large and were found to be consistent across tasks (like speaking, reading, and listening) and languages (English, French, Finnish, and Japanese). This strongly indicates that our language-learning abilities depend on the two brain systems.
"These brain systems are also found in animals – for example, rats use them when they learn to navigate a maze," explained co-author Phillip Hamrick of Kent State University. "Whatever changes these systems might have undergone to support language, the fact that they play an important role in this critical human ability is quite remarkable."
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The findings could have important implications in helping people learn. As well as aiding people learning a second language, they may also be useful for people suffering from autism, dyslexia, and the many others conditions that lead to difficulties communicating.
"Researchers still know very little about the genetic and biological bases of language learning, and the new findings may lead to advances in these areas," added Ullman. "We know much more about the genetics and biology of the brain systems than about these same aspects of language learning. Since our results suggest that language learning depends on the brain systems, the genetics, biology, and learning mechanisms of these systems may very well also hold for language."
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