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10.8: Autonomy of Language

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    Autonomy of Language, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    To close out the chapter, the course and the book, let's remind ourselves that language is only one thing that our brain does. Our brain is this multifaceted, amazing, complex combination of neurons and other matter that does so much, and we're still learning about what the brain can do.

    For example, through lateralization studies and brain mapping, we're able to start figuring out exactly how the brain processes various things, including language. Catherine Anderson in an earlier section talked about PET scans and MRIs and other things, so I’m not going to go into that too much here. Certainly, when we look at Event-related Brain Potentials (ERPs), we're able to start mapping out how the brain processes language. This is even evolved in the 15 years or so that I’ve had this slide. Realistically, we use ERPs and many other tests and procedures to describe and capture how the brain processes language and everything else it does. We're able to look at speech versus non-speech stimuli and see how the brain lights up, how it processes, how that light processes through different parts of the brain. We're also able to show pretty distinctively that the left hemisphere is where language is processed.

    We should also remind ourselves about the Critical Age Hypothesis, and we talked about this with respect the second language acquisition in the previous chapter. We know, and we can show even neurologically, that sometime around puberty is when the elasticity of the brain changes. Now, how it changes is still being understood; we do know that once humans hit right around puberty, they learn by logic; we don't absorb information like a sponge, rather we are processing it based off of previous information that we have learned. Even when you think somebody is learning through osmosis and they're just soaking up information and spitting it out all, they are processing, probably at a faster pace or at a higher rate than we mere mortals, and that they're basing it off of knowledge they've learned previously. We do know that there are cases where, unfortunately, children have been deprived of language; you may read about the case of Genie or Chelsea, or other children who, at birth, their parents or caregivers thought that they were somehow ‘not normal’. They therefore deprived these children of everything, including language. These children were stuck in a room and were not talked to, not played with, not interacted with, abused and neglected. In those cases, yes, it is true that the children have exhibited different developmental issues with respect to the language, such that when they are found as teenagers or adults, unfortunately, they do not have the linguistic capabilities that most others do. That being said, their treatment was certainly unethical and inhumane and should never be duplicated. What is more, we don't actually know whether their lack of linguistic inputs affected their linguistic productivity later on, or whether there was something else going on, and most of these cases that we hear about come from prior eras, meaning we didn't have any concept of the neurological processes that we do now, or have had for the last 30 years. What we can say is this: When we get older, we have to rely on making neural connections and learning based off of prior experience. The more prior experience you have, the easier the learning is.

    It is also important to bring up when we have cases of children or young adults who seem either to be on the autism spectrum, or have some other developmental capability that precludes them from talking too much, or talking in ways that are not quite as fluent as you would expect for somebody of their age. We definitely have cases and continue to have cases of children who linguistically seem to be okay, but developmentally are behind their cohorts. We have cases with respect to autism spectrum disorder where linguistic development is not on par with other aspects of the neurological development. However, notice that it doesn't necessarily mean that just because you can't speak well or speak at a certain level that you are not intelligent. There is true autonomy, and we can see this in a variety of cases. Numerous folks who are on the autism spectrum show amazing brilliance with respect to everything to math and science to art. They just may not be able to communicate verbally or through sign language what they're actually thinking. That does not mean that language and intelligence are connected; in fact, it shows pretty conclusively they're not.

    Finally, there are a couple of examples to bring up with respect to Specific Language Impairment (SLI). Our data on this are changing, and I mean rapidly. Historically, SLI has been something that runs in families. For example, if a four year old says, “Woofwoof run door,” “Give me apple,” or “Man speak yesterday,” you would expect that kind of language out of a two-year-old. Children are frequently told or diagnosed with specific language impairment right around 4-6 years of age. This is changing rapidly; much of what was previously diagnosed as SLI might actually be autism spectrum disorder. In some cases, it may be nothing at all, that maybe at the age of four they're still talking like this, but come age five or six are significantly more verbal and fluid in their speech. Sometimes it could be environmental factors; if you have a child who was in a family that doesn’t talk very much to the child, and they’re allowed to play very much, their linguistic output is going to be reduced compared to someone else in their same age range.

    Our understanding of how we process language is changing almost daily; this new information that we keep getting over and over again shows that language and intelligence and any other aspect of cognitive development are separate. You may be highly proficient in math but not be able to tie your shoelaces, or so the story goes with Albert Einstein. The same is true for language. You could be perfectly highly fluent in language but not be able to solve this simple math problem, or be able to understand a piece of art, or be able to sing a song. Language is autonomous from every other cognitive process, and even if there is damage or lesions or other type of malady that affects the brain, and it can affect both language and other aspects of cognitive processing, that's not to say that language can't come back, or any of these other areas of processing can't come back. With the brain, anything seems to be possible.

    10.8: Autonomy of Language is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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