Human language raises a large number of research questions - and Max Planck scientists are looking for the answers

Narrating, explaining, discussing, persuading, instructing – what humans do with language goes far beyond the mere exchange of information. Without language there would be no business or politics, religion or science, law or poetry. However, the phenomenon of language holds many mysteries: What is the origin of this uniquely human aptitude? How does our native language influence us, and which characteristics has language developed in the different corners of the world? An overview of some important language-related research is presented here.

Do we have a language gene?

Human beings’ ability to speak must be genetic – science is certain about this. Yet, identifying the genes involved is a difficult task. The gene FOXP2, which was discovered some 15 years ago, was feted in the press as the “language gene”. One of the scientists responsible for its discovery is Simon Fisher, now Director at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. “FOXP2 is not exclusive to humans,” he reports, thereby qualifying the initial euphoria at its discovery. “It is found in many vertebrates”. Although errors in the FOXP2 transcription factor cause speech disorders in humans, many difficulties relating to speech and language are not down to this gene alone. “We must assume that a large number of genes play a role in speech,” says Fisher. He has set himself the task of tracking down as many of these genes as possible and decoding their functions.

Language is in the genes

The human aptitude for language is unique. However, animals also exchange information with each other: through bodily postures like snarling, through chemical signals like the scent trails of ants, and through sounds like birdsong. Some mammalian species like whales, bats and elephants actually communicate using very complex sounds: “Their vocalizations have a lot of similarities with human language,” explains Sonja Vernes, a Research Group Leader from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. “These are, for example, learned within a social group.” Vernes is particularly interested in the genetic basis of the varied vocalizations used by animals. She hopes that her research will also provide information about the emergence of human language.

What happens in the brain when we talk?

A crucial key to the understanding of human language is found in the brain. The parts of the brain that play a major role in speaking and understanding were already discovered over 150 years ago. Yet many seemingly simple questions about language remain unresolved. David Poeppel, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, studies how spoken language, which reaches the ear as sound, can be processed correctly in the brain – and, vice versa, how responses are generated in the brain and expressed in the form of spoken words. One finding of his research is that screaming – probably the most original form of human vocalization – triggers increased activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain responsible for the processing and remembering of fear, among other things. “Screams therefore occupy a privileged acoustic niche,” says Poeppel. “This ensures their biological and, ultimately also, social efficiency – we only shout when we have to.”

Peter Hagoort, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, is interested in the question as to how neuronal mechanisms collate information from different sources, for example from the memory or sensory perceptions, and, with the help of language, form statements that go beyond the level of individual words. Hagoort was the first researcher to use measurement methods that made it possible to observe a speaker’s brain in the act of speaking. This enabled him to discover, among other things, that the brain collects grammatical information about a word before analyzing its sound.

Why is language acquisition so easy for children?

Children make a great deal of progress very quickly when they acquire language. However, the ability to immediately understand complex formulations only develops in adulthood. Angela Friederici, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, has discovered why this is the case: “Up to the third year of life, only one particular area of the cerebrum is involved in language processing. A second central language area, known as Broca’s area, gradually comes into play after that,” explains the linguist, psychologist and neuroscientist. Broca’s area is an important language centre in the frontal lobe of the cerebrum, which specifically processes complex linguistic information. As Friederici discovered, Broca’s area is not only more strongly activated with increasing age, it is also increasingly integrated into the entire language network. The arcuate fasciculus, a bundle of nerve fibres that links the two language centres, plays a crucial role in this process. When it is fully mature, complicated formulations can be processed just as well and quickly as easy ones.

What do the different languages throughout the world have in common?

What are the universal principles that link languages all over the world? This is one of the big questions that has preoccupied linguistics for a long time. Finding answers to it is a difficult undertaking: the world’s approximately 7,000 languages, their vocabulary and grammar are so diverse that it is difficult to find characteristics that are common to all language families.

For this reason, the scientists working in Stephen C. Levinson’s Language and Cognition Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics are looking for principles that exist beyond language. For example, they discovered that abbreviated words like ‘huh’ are used universally to indicate to a speaker that their counterpart in a conversation has not understood them. They have also discovered two other strategies which are used to avoid misunderstandings: listeners interrupt conversations and they ask for clarification of what has just been said. “Without such a system, our communication would constantly go awry,” says Mark Dingemanse, who made an important contribution to the research studies. Thus, something that sounds quite banal has proven to be a universal and unique feature of human language.

In Vanuatu - the "Galapagos of languages" - researchers are investigating what drives language diversity. more

It is a very recent insight that certain sounds and letters arise surprisingly often in certain words across different languages. This is the result of an analysis carried out by researchers from the Max Planck Institutes for the Science of Human History and for Mathematics in the Sciences. Using a database containing a good 4,000 languages, the researchers examined whether certain sounds arise more or less frequently in 40 particular words than could be expected to arise by chance. They found clear links for 30 of the words. For example, the words used for ‘tongue’ in many languages contain and e and an l but rarely feature a u or a k. Similarly, in many languages ‘sand’ has an a and ‘stone’ has a t. “Our analysis shows that certain sounds are preferred and others are avoided in a large proportion of all the words used across continents and language families. Moreover, these correlations arise among people from very different cultural, historical and geographical contexts,” says Damián Blasi, one of the study’s main authors.

Russell Gray, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, is investigating how the multiplicity of languages arose. His initial thesis is that, like physical characteristics, their development was evolutionary. With the help of computer-aided modelling methods, he is working on creating family trees for languages. He aims to identify when and why the different languages took different turns in their development.

How do we use language?

Language is for speaking - and this very characteristic poses a challenge for research. Compared to tests carried out under laboratory conditions, everyday conversations are extremely heterogeneous and more difficult to analyze as a result. Nevertheless, the study of conversation has recently produced interesting results. A team of researchers headed by Stephen C. Levinson at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have discovered that turn-taking in conversation occurs at an astonishing speed: just 200 milliseconds or so pass between one speaker’s statement and another’s response. Given that our brain needs at least 600 milliseconds to come up with a word, this finding is particularly surprising. It means that the understanding and production of language overlap, in other words we answer before we have even had time to think about a response.

Levinson’s colleague Antje Meyer, Director of the Institute’s Psychology of Language Department, is examining the tactics used by human beings here. One possibility is that they make reference to a few words from the previous speaker’s utterance and in this way win time for the formulation of their own. For example, the answer to the question “What is your favourite food?” could be formulated as follows: “My favourite food? It’s pizza.” Speaking more slowly and pausing in sentences, which are often padded out with ‘ehs’, also help speakers to win time for thinking.

Winfried Menninghaus, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, focuses on a very particular use of language. He examines the effect that poetry and prose have on people – not just mentally, but also physically. He is developing new categories and methods for accurately describing characteristics that have an aesthetic impact – ranging from linguistic descriptions to comparative studies on rhythm, metre and intonation. One important insight that has emerged from his work is that: “Irrespective of what kind of text we listen to or read, our bodies always react,” says Menninghaus. The response elicited by poetry, in particular, is almost as strong as that triggered by our favourite music. According to Menninghaus, the reason for this is that, through our preverbal communication with our parents, we become accustomed to the verse-like rhythm of prosody from birth. “We acquire language through poetry,” says Menninghaus. For this reason, our attention is particularly attuned to rhythm and rhyme.

Questions about questions

The vast topic of language is studied not only by linguists and literary scientists, psychologists, cognition researchers and geneticists but also by scientists from neighbouring disciplines. For example, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development study the best way for school children to learn how to read. To do this, the children clearly need well-established language skills. ‘Translation’, i.e. the transfer of legal texts into other languages and cultures, is a central focus of scientific interest at the Max Planck Institute for European Legal History. And language in a broader sense is also the focus of the research carried out in even more remote disciplines: for example, a Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology is investigating how ravens and other animals communicate using gestures. And researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics are working on the computer generation of audio versions of films for the blind.

The research questions around the phenomenon of language and speech are set to keep scientists busy for a very long time to come.

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