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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Show or Hide answer As devices get closer to imitating human brain activity, will we get to the point that implants (brain or otherwise) will enable voiceless communication?
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Our current understanding of the human brain holds that it is an information processor, comparable to a computer that enables us to cope with an extremely challenging environment. As such, it would be, theoretically, possible to extract the information the brain contains, through what is known as a `brain-computer interface’ (BCI): By measuring neural activity and applying sophisticated, self-learning computer algorithms, researchers are now able to extract and reproduce, for instance, image data that is being processed by the visual cortex. Such methods allow researchers to take a snap-shot of what someone is actually seeing though his or her own eyes.


Image: Ars Electronica

With regards to language, recent studies have shown promising results as well. Brain imaging data was used to establish what kind of stimuli (spoken, written, photographs, natural sounds) people were observing in a task where they had to discriminate between animals and tools; researchers were able to determine the kind of stimulus by merely looking at a person’s brain activity. More invasive recordings have also demonstrated that we can extract information about speech sounds people are hearing and producing. This body of research suggests that it may be possible in the not-too-distant future to develop a neural prosthetic that would allow people to generate speech in a computer by just thinking about speaking.

When discussing voiceless communication, however, the application of BCI is still particularly challenging for a few reasons. First, human communication is substantially more than simply speaking and listening, and there are a whole host of other signals that we use to communicate (e.g., gestures, facial expression and other forms of non-verbal communication). Secondly, while BCIs to date have focused on extracting information from the brain (e.g., to-be-articulated syllables), inserting information into the brain would require more direct manipulation of brain activity. Cochlear implants represent one approach where we have been able to directly present incoming auditory information to auditory nerve cells in the ear in order to help congenitally deaf individuals hear. Such stimulation, however, still does not amount to directly stimulating the brain in the full richness needed for everyday communication. So, while both `reading’ and `writing’ language data from and to the brain with the aim to enable voiceless communication is theoretically possible, both are -extremely- challenging and would require tremendous advances in fields such as linguistics, neuroscience, computer science and statistics.

by  Dan Acheson & Rick Janssen

Further Reading:

[1] Schoenmakers, S., Barth, M., Heskes, T., & van Gerven, M. A. J. (2013). Linear Reconstruction of Perceived Images from Human Brain Activity. NeuroImage, 83, 951-961.(link)

[2] Simanova, I., Hagoort, P., Oostenveld, R., van Gerven, M.A.J. (2012). Modality-Independent Decoding of Semantic Information from the Human Brain. Cerebral Cortex, doi:10.1093/cercor/bhs324.(link)

[3] Chang, E. F., Niziolek, C. A., Knight, R. T., Nagarajan, S. S., & Houde, J. F. (2013). Human cortical sensorimotor network underlying feedback control of vocal pitch.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110, 2653-2658. (link)

[4] Chang, E. F., Rieger, J. W., Johnson, K., Berger, M. S., Barbaro, N. M., & Knight, R. T. (2010). Categorical speech representation in human superior temporal gyrus. Nature neuroscience, 13, 1428-1432.(link)

[5] Bouchard, K. E., Mesgarani, N., Johnson, K., & Chang, E. F. (2013). Functional organization of human sensorimotor cortex for speech articulation. Nature, 495, 327-332. (link)

Show or Hide answer Why is English the universal language?
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Unlike most of the other answers here, language itself doesn't really come into it; English is perceived by many people as the universal language because of the former influence of the British Empire and the current influence of American political and economic hegemony.


Image: Jurriaan Persyn

It is possible to try giving a strictly linguistic explanation; it could be that English is a simple language which is relatively easy to pick up. English has no noun genders, no complicated morphology, no tone system, it is written in the Roman alphabet which is pretty good at accurately mapping sounds to symbols, and the prevalence of English-language films, TV, and music makes it readily accessible and easy to practise. However, English also has an extensive vocabulary, a highly inconsistent spelling system, many irregular verbs, some problematic sounds such as "th", and a large inventory of vowels which can make it difficult for non-native speakers to tell words apart. Arguments about which languages are easy or difficult to learn are ultimately circular, as the perception of what is easy and what is difficult to learn depends on the person doing the learning. 

The second explanation is historical. The UK was the first industrialised nation, and discovered that one of the advantages to this was that they could colonise the rest of the developing world far faster than other European countries could. The British Empire covered a quarter of the globe at its largest, including North America, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, much of West and Southern Africa, South Asia, and parts of South-East Asia. The UK set up English-speaking systems of government, industry, and exploitation in these areas, which established English as the language of global power in the industrial era. The British Empire finally fell apart after the Second World War, but the 20th century saw the transfer of power from one English-speaking expansionist power to another. The USA's cultural, economic, political, and military domination of the 20th and 21st centuries has ensured that English remains the most important and influential global language. As the official language of business, science, diplomacy, communications, and IT (not to mention the main language of the most popular websites), this is unlikely to change any time soon. 

Written by Gwilym Lockwood & Katrin Bangel

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos