The Magic of Human Language

The significant problems that we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.
—Albert Einstein

If a more complicated entity than the human brain exists on Earth, it has succeeded in maintaining its confidential nature. Not only is the brain the most multifaceted organ in the human body, and composed of the greatest number of diverse cell types in a single organ, it is also the most adaptable and complex single object in the known universe.
__ Prior to the 1990s, most information gathered about the human brain came largely by way of misfortune—brain-injured patients or disease. The balance of our knowledge was speculative or intelligent deductive conclusions. Brain injuries and postoperative behavior changes gave us a peek into the nature of processes such as movement, memory and language.
__ Aristotle (384–322 BC), a leading thinker of his day, was an advocate of the cardiocentric view of cognition. He believed the heart was central to all cognitive responsibilities, including morality and higher intelligence. The brain was relegated to a more humble undertaking: cooling the warm blood circulated by the heart (demoted to the menial role of radiator). Today, we still refer to successfully memorized information as content we know “by heart.”

Language Learning

When we look closely at the human cerebral cortex, it resembles an oversized quilt, bunched up to cover the subcortical structures busily operating beneath it. If one unfolded and stretched out the cerebral cortex, its surface area could cover a desktop (2,500 cm2). Six seamless paperlike layers, neatly stacked together, form the human cortex. The interactions between these neuron-rich layers foster the biological basis of our incredible catalog of human behaviors, including language.
__ Language is one of the most crucial competencies mastered by the human brain, although learning to speak has the appearance of an ordinary phase in child development. Virtually any person can learn one or more of the 6,000 languages spoken today. Our 100 billion networked neurons actively seek external auditory stimuli in order for the brain’s language systems to develop.
__ Multi-sensory experience is ideal for language development. It often takes four different exposures—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting—before information enters into long-term memory. Experience also establishes all associations for a given word.
__ When a new concept is processed, its elements are stored in numerous interconnected neural networks throughout the brain. A memory is easier to recall when there are several routes back to the target concept. The definition for a word is coupled with other words to which it is experientially linked. Priming the memory of one word simultaneously revives the memories of other connected words. “Word webs” are incredibly effective language-learning tools that demonstrate the power that a single word has in coaxing other words out of hiding during thinking, speaking, listening, reading, or writing. The more frequently that specialized language patterns in the brain fire together, the more they will permanently “hardwire” themselves together for increased usefulness.
__ What have we learned about teaching language from this research? Teaching any language should not begin with a sudden, formal immersion into the printed word. Human beings have always been born to learn, but not born to read—the brain’s existing neural circuitry adapted itself to support the requirements of this new task. Unlike our five basic senses, proficiency in reading has to be taught and learned.

From Object Recognition to Word Recognition

Circles, spheres, squares, blocks, cylinders, and cones are among the 24 basic “geons” (geometric forms) that we see in our natural environment. Most letters mimic these forms. Simplistic representations of concrete objects elicit a mental reminiscence of the “real thing.” When one, two or three geons are combined, their orientation and arrangement can bring to mind over 10 million objects and patterns found in the world. For example, the image of an automobile is brought to life by two circles placed beneath two rectangles; a cone and two circles can suggest either a clown or an ice cream cone, depending on their size and orientation (see Figure #1: “Geons”). These patterns are ripe for modification into symbols. Oral and written language reflect the cognitive relationships that link objects, images, thoughts and words together into the single complicated event we experience as symbolic communication.
__ The theory of object recognition seeks to explain how stimuli entering the visual cortex are matched with internal representations of those same forms (now stored in neural pathways). This matching strategy helps us make sense of visual information. Since object-processing in the brain preceded symbolic-processing abilities, the “words” found in many languages were initially created directly from pictorial representations of objects. Symbolic imaging is, and has always been, easier for the human brain to digest than written words.
__ Brain-building experiences alter the very architecture of the language-sensitive centers in the brain and craft clear passageways to school-readiness and success. But it is impossible to build extensively on weak foundations. Language should be learned through a sequence of events (see The Seven Steps to Language Learning). Informed by cognitive research, successful classrooms utilize this seven-step sequence for symbolic-language development, with plenty of opportunities along the way for expressive language.
__ Active learning experiences provide the most substantive basis for language development; for example, a scenario involving objects that can later be used as catalysts for creating images in the mind’s eye. Object imaging to reproduce a thought is easier than processing abstract ideas. The mental constructs derived from firsthand experiences, especially when verbalized, later serve as the foundational basis for processing symbols, abstractions and other forms of complex thinking. Oral language develops in a “phonological loop,” where a child begins to listen to her own voice while speaking and, later, while reading. If she is fortunate enough to have others read to her, learning to read will be an easier transition.
__ Abstractions become less abstract to a young brain when there is a neural connection that takes one’s mind back to the tangible and concrete basis for one’s understandings.
__ Unfortunately, more often than not in our schools, formal language instruction begins at the seventh stage of this sequence. The national push for “early literacy” standards runs counter to what we know from developmental neuroscience and research on how the young brain creates a capacity for processing language. Some say, “We don’t have time to teach all of these steps.” If time is not planned for the first six generative steps for language learning, in all fairness to the learner, we will need to lower our language-learning expectations.

The Language Connection to Art and Music

Most cultures introduce infants to informal language development by singing songs and lullabies to babies, later teaching them to move their bodies to the music, which adds another dimension to language development by connecting it with the brain-body circuitry. Music, typically correlated to right-hemispheric function, has historically been one of the most effective means of learning the sounds and tonal nature of any language, particularly when merged with speech (generally considered a property of the left hemisphere).
__ It is hardly surprising that the 26 letters of the English alphabet are frequently taught through the “Alphabet Song,” to merge the orthographic representations of the English language with the sounds. When the 26 letters of our alphabet are sung to the familiar tune, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” the well-practiced song is connected to the English alphabet. The slower-processing right hemisphere assists the faster-processing left hemisphere in memorizing the order of letters, while also practicing their sounds. The same process allows stutterers to sing a song without a single stammer when circuits operating inside the auditory cortex provide a (phonological) feedback loop, reducing motor delays in the prefrontal motor cortex. While these individuals are incapable of reading the lyrics off of a piece of paper without stuttering, they can sing.
__ When the phonemes (the sounds of spoken the language) are linked in the auditory cortex of the brain to the written symbols (the graphemes), the “brain basics” for written language learning are ready for activation.
__ Pictorial representations and symbols have been part of the human experience for far longer than the printed word. Parents should encourage their children to draw at home. Learning to visually reproduce objects and concepts in the mind is also an integral part of reading comprehension. To understand the printed word, readers must rely heavily on the “picture-making” mechanisms in the visual cortex of the brain. Children first see and touch objects around them. A precise name for those objects is learned next. The same neural pathways that responded to seeing the “real thing” are activated to mentally recreate that same object in the visual and association cortices. Later, these brain circuits will also learn to respond to a series of symbols representing a word. Repeatedly making these associations renders the image and the word indissociable from one another (see Chart #3: From Objects to Words). The word cannot be heard, seen or said without the picture immediately coming to mind.
__ Visual imagery is fundamentally a nonverbal dimension of reading and is often a determining factor in reading comprehension, which, ultimately, is the purpose of reading. Mental pictures of characters, actions and events must be maintained in working memory. If the pictures are “lost,” so is the story. The association cortices of the brain make up 37% of the cerebral cortex, and they work vigorously to help “make sense” of visual and verbal information. A child learns to create mental pictures for what he hears or reads in a story. The “context processor” in the brain constructs an online, coherent interpretation of what is being heard. Words are used to think, not just to read.
__ Art, dance, and music give rise to understanding the significance of patterns, relationships, connections and symbolic representations. These are all useful tools for understanding the patterned nature of language. The physical evidence left behind by nearly every early human society indicated that art, symbols, and music were vital elements to the human experience. Perhaps that is why the arts are fittingly referred to as the “humanities.”

Brain-Building: Word by Word

The English language is composed of nearly 600,000 words, constituting the largest number of words in one language. This descriptive database partially explains why English has become the lingua franca of business, international politics and the Internet. Our everyday speech consists of 5,000 to 17,000 words, on average. In our daily communication, 400 to 600 high-frequency words are typically used, out of the 86,741 most widely used English words.
The faster a child’s vocabulary grows, the greater is his ability to understand the ideas of others, as well as his ability to express his own ideas with precision. The words we learn are the words we subsequently use to think. Educational organizations host annual seminars on “closing the achievement gap.” However, the achievement gap is primarily a knowledge gap, due in part to a vocabulary gap. Essentially, vocabulary is a proxy for knowledge.
__ The most common method of teaching vocabulary has been to break a word into its composite syllables, and pronouncing each of them in the order of their left-to-right appearance. However, the brain can process syllables more efficiently in their reverse order (another “trick” of the brain). Here is one example of that strategy:
__ Dactyloscopy is the practice of using fingerprints for personal identification. We instruct students to read the phonetic “dak-tu-los’ku-pē,” pronouncing each syllable in sequence. However, if students pronounce each phonetic part in the reverse order instead, learners will be far more successful in pronouncing any new polysyllabic word, often on their very first attempt (see Chart #4: Learning to Pronounce a New Word).
__ By placing a finger over all except the very last syllable of a word, and exposing one syllable at a time moving from right-to-left, learners encounter considerably fewer obstacles in pronouncing (and later recognizing) these new words. Each syllable “primes” the next syllable directly out of one’s “working memory” while strengthening the synaptic connections for the whole word.
__ When students are taught in the traditional left-to-right method, this “brain-antagonistic” tactic adds to the difficulty of learning new vocabulary words. A limited vocabulary is a crucial factor underlying failure in school. A history of poor language and reading skills limits lifelong cognitive abilities and correlates with low-skilled employment and residency in correctional institutions.

Language: Where it All Begins

Neuropsychologists have linked specific regions of the brain to specific brain functions and processes. While working memory has been associated with the hippocampus in rats, the working memory system in humans is linked to several other brain regions, including the frontal and parietal lobes of the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex’s region responsible for understanding language (Wernicke’s area) gets “wired” well before the maturation of the motor area responsible for producing speech (Broca’s area). Toddlers will regularly demonstrate that they “understand” language 12 to 18 months before they begin to speak. (“Ma-ma” and “Da-da” are not necessarily evidence of learning to speak, because deaf children utter these same sounds without hearing them first.)
__ Children often find ways to use gestures to communicate their wants and needs, referred to as “baby signs,” well before they learn to speak their first words. Toddlers at the Ohio State University’s Infant-Toddler Laboratory School have learned to sign using American Sign Language during late infancy (at the end of their first year), allowing them to express their ideas, their desires and intentions without the spoken word. Not only did these children speak earlier than the average, but they also displayed fewer temper tantrums, showed advanced emotional management and were more comfortable speaking.
__ Parents of toddlers are keenly aware of their child’s ability to recognize the correct names of objects, people and actions before the child can articulate the precise word to describe them. Moms and dads help promote language development through “parentese,” the exaggerated speech used worldwide by parents as they speak to infants, where we overemphasize important language sounds. The universal, instinctive nature of parentese, singing songs and reading stories and poetry to toddlers leads to the mastery of language. With their budding mirror neurons activated, infants fixate on the mouth of a speaker and mentally rehearse how s/he would produce those same sounds, well before s/he is capable of speech. However, when children hear no language at all, the circuitry for language gets “pruned” away. Once the brain pathways for a specialized function, such as language, have been redirected, the “window of opportunity” for learning begins to close. Those resources are diverted elsewhere to support other important behaviors, resulting in language delays, language production problems, or comprehension deficits. The brain has an enduring neural legacy that reflects how it was sculpted over time.
__ At approximately 22 months of age, normal neural circuitry has physically connected Broca’s area to Wernicke’s area, the cortical region devoted to understanding semantic analysis and word meaning. Once these connections are established, a child will begin constructing his/her first short sentences, almost always composed of a single verb and a single noun (“Tyler eat”), and nearly always in the proper word order. This is one of the most exciting moments of parenthood, signaling to them that the magic of human language is about to unfold right before their eyes. [bw]

Kenneth Wesson delivers keynote addresses on the neuroscience of learning for educational organizations and institutions throughout the United States and overseas. He has spoken to educators from six of the world’s seven continents and can be seen on PBS and other media networks’ special programs on brain development.
In the publication “Forecasting Independent Education to 2025,” the National Association of Independent Schools acknowledges the contributions of four educational researchers who “have been influential in reshaping the independent school classroom.” Those individuals are Howard Gardner, Daniel Goleman, Kenneth Wesson, and Mel Levine. Kenneth Wesson can be contacted at


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