How Does The Brain Understand Language?

How does the brain process and create language?
Cognitive linguistics represented by a group of women sitting in a seminar classroom together.

The field of linguistics comprises a huge range of topics. If someone says they’re a linguist, that means they could be working with artificial intelligence to teach computers how to communicate, or embedding themselves in remote communities to learn more about minority languages, or studying the human brain to see how it produces and understands speech, or something else entirely. Diving into the subfields of linguistics is important to know what someone is really researching.

Cognitive linguistics is one such subfield, but it can be difficult to define. Its origins reveal disagreements on the very nature of language and the human mind, and it involves some of the most famous linguists of the 20th century. Here’s a brief introduction to a pretty complex topic.

What Is Cognitive Linguistics?

The field of cognitive linguistics investigates how language is formed and understood by the human mind. It is one of three subfields of linguistics that deal roughly with the brain. There’s also psycholinguistics, which looks at the intersections of psychology and linguistics, and neurolinguistics, which is the hard science approach looking at how the brain processes language. In contrast, cognitive linguistics deals exclusively with cognition, which is a very broad topic encompassing all of the ways that the mind takes in inputs and makes sense of it (attention, memory, perception and more).

The study of cognition can technically be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece, as philosophers pondered the mind. Cognitive linguistics, however, is a relatively recent field of study, coming about in conjunction with cognitive psychology in the mid-20th century. You can trace it to one specific linguist: Noam Chomsky

In 1959, Chomsky wrote a rebuttal to B.F. Skinner, and in so doing challenged behaviorism in general. Up until that point, the leading theory of the mind was behaviorism, which posited that the brain is essentially a blank slate that responds to inputs with outputs. Skinner was one of the leading behaviorists, and in his book Verbal Behavior he laid out a theory of language acquisition where children get inputs — hearing language spoken around them — and put together language that way. 

Chomsky rejected this, writing that this input-output model does not adequately explain how children are able to learn a language so quickly. Instead, his theory was that humans are born with some inherent ability to learn a language. This theory was called generative grammar, and Chomsky considered it a part of the larger field of cognitive science.

While Chomsky’s ideas were very influential, not everyone agreed that his view of the mind — that there is an in-built module in the brain that processes language — is the correct one. In the 1980s, linguists George Lakoff and Ronald Langacker combined some of their theories to make a new framework for linguistics, which they called Cognitive Linguistics. In this framework, language isn’t a separately evolved feature of the brain, but instead came about through the combination of other cognitive skills that humans evolved.

With this version of Cognitive Linguistics, there is no “generative grammar” as Chomsky defined it. Lakoff proposed a construction grammar, in which language can be broken down into pieces of meaning from morphemes to full phrases. Langacker developed a more broad concept of a cognitive grammar, which is an approach to language that looks at all of the pieces of language exist on the same continuum (whereas Chomsky believed meaning and grammar were two separate things).

Both of these versions of cognitive linguistics have a specific agenda about which version of the mind they support: modular vs. anti-modular. Modular, which is Chomsky’s notion, states that the brain has separate “modules” that accomplish different things, so there is a language module specifically. In Lakoff and Langacker’s anti-modular theory, there is no specific language module, and it’s a more generalized skill. There is also a third option that threads the needle between these two, where language processing is specialized but it’s not entirely separate from other cognitive skills. 

While this may sound like a bit of a technical debate, it’s worth knowing that when you see “cognitive linguistics,” it might be referring to any three of these concepts. While there are still fundamental disagreements in the field, all cognitive linguists are united in trying to figure out the exact relationship between language and the mind.

What Questions Does Cognitive Linguistics Try To Answer?

Te main question for cognitive linguistics is “What is the connection between language and the mind?” That’s a big question, though, and cognitive linguists can look at it through a few different lenses.

  • How do humans process language? This is the big question that we talked about above, and there is no broad consensus on it yet.
  • How does language shape thought and vice versa? Linguists want to know how language influences our thinking processes and how our cognitive abilities, such as perception and memory, influence language structure and use.
  • How do humans conceptualize and categorize the world? Cognitive linguists study how humans form and structure mental concepts, which are reflected in language. Humans can only really communicate through language, so it makes sense to use language to figure out what is going on in the mind. Linguists examine how language expresses complex cognitive processes like metaphor.
  • How do humans convey meaning? Cognitive linguistics including understanding how language encodes meaning. 
  • What are the cognitive and cultural factors that influence language? Culture and language are very entwined, so it plays a role in cognitive linguistics. Figuring out which aspects of language are inherent and which are influenced by their surroundings is tricky.

As you can imagine, cognitive linguistics is a field that can get very complicated very quickly. Behind these broad questions are thousands of smaller ones, like “How can a person hear the difference between vowels?” and “What traits do all languages have in common?” We’re still a long way off from fully understanding how humans understand language, but linguists continue making progress in figuring out what exactly is going on in the brain.

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