Despite the obvious differences among human languages, all languages may be constrained by an innate ‘universal grammar’-- an idea long championed by the linguist Noam Chomsky. A new study shows that Broca’s area, a region of the brain involved in language, becomes increasingly active as subjects acquire rules from a foreign language, but not as they acquire comparable rules that are inconsistent with real languages. The paper, in the July issue of Nature Neuroscience, concludes that Broca’s area may be a neural substrate for universal grammar.
German-speaking adults learned a small vocabulary in a foreign language (Italian or Japanese). Subjects were then taught rules either consistent or inconsistent with universal grammar. While they were in an fMRI scanner, subjects were asked to judge whether test sentences followed or violated these rules. The authors report that a specific region of Broca’s area became more active over time as participants became more adept with the real rules, and less active over time in response to rules that did not follow universal grammar. As Gary Marcus and colleagues discuss in an accompanying News and Views, there are several important issues that will need to be settled before concluding that Broca’s area is the neural substrate for universal grammar. Nevertheless, the results are important for understanding how the brain may shape the structure of language.
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