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Session Overview

Cartoon of two people speaking to each other, one asking question (English, monolingual), and one replying (multi-lingual, showing several country flags).

Language is an amazing thing. How do we learn and use language in our everyday lives? How does the brain make this happen? This session explores the brain basis of language perception and comprehension, how language contributes to our understanding of our environment, and how we learn languages.

Keywords: phoneme, speech, comprehension, hearing, writing, reading, phonology, syntax, evoked response potential (ERP), meaning, pragmatics, aphasia, language acquisition

Image courtesy of zinjixmaggir on Flickr (aka Markus Koljonen,

Session Activities


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Lecture Videos

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Video Resources


Language is just incredible – think about how easy it is for us, as babies, to learn our native language effortlessly, and yet how hard it is, once we’ve already learned a language, to learn another… Read more »

Check Yourself

Short Answer Questions

1) Language is a system of communication and representation that is governed by systematic rules. The rules of can be studied at multiple levels. For each of the following terms, identify the features of language they describe:

  1. Syntax
  2. Semantics
  3. Phonology

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  1. Syntax: The description of how words are organized into phrases and sentences. Often called the "grammar" of a language.
  2. Semantics: The description of the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences.
  3. Phonology: The description of the sounds of a language and how they are put together to make words.


2) Language is a powerful system because of the principle of discrete infinity, which means that a small number of basic units can be combined in an unlimited number of ways to represent and communicate ideas.

  1. What is the smallest unit of meaning in language called? Give an example of how these can be combined.
  2. What is the smallest contrastive unit of sound in language called? Give an example of one of these from English. Give an example of one of these from a foreign language you might have heard, but which is not present in English.

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  1. Morpheme. For example: Un + believe + able = unbelievable
  2. Phoneme. For example: /k/ as in "cat" in English. In other languages but not English, e.g., the trilled "r" in Spanish, the clicks in Bantu, the trilled "r" in French, the hard "h" in Hebrew.



3) It is remarkable that babies learn language so fast and so effectively, even though no one ever explicitly teaches them the rules of their language. Describe two facts you have learned about how babies learn language.

Sample Answers

  • Girls learn more words earlier than boys.
  • Babies begin to lose the ability to discriminate foreign language speech sounds by 9-12 months.
  • Children might use words wrong in overextensions (e.g. calling all animals "doggie") or underextensions (refusing to call any other dog besides the family pet a "doggie").


Further Study

These optional resources are provided for students that wish to explore this topic more fully.

Supplemental reading Buy at Amazon Crystal, D. How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live Or Die. Penguin, 2007. ISBN: 9781583332917. [Preview with Google Books] An introduction to lingustics written for the layperson, recommended by the TAs.
Blog Language Log Covers language in current events, run by University of Pennsylvania phonetician Mark Liberman with multiple guest linguists
Web resource Lewis, M. Paul (editor). Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Sixteenth edition. SIL International, 2009. Reference work on languages of the world, with web resources and preview pages of print edition
Wikipedia Genie (feral child) Example discussed at end of class.
Textbook supplement Study materials for Ch. 8 "Language and Thinking: What Humans Do Best." In Kosslyn & Rosenberg, Psychology in Context, 3/e (Pearson, 2007) Practice test questions, flashcards, and media for a related textbook


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