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He said she said

A psychologist, a geneticist and a neurologist walk into Curry Ballroom….sorry that was lame. I thought it sounded like the start of a joke, but I guess not.

Anyway, it’s true. A couple weeks ago three leading scholars in the field of linguistics participated in a language symposium organized by Iris Berent of the Psychology Department.

Language is a defining feature of the human species, she said at the start of the day-long program, called “The human capacity for language,” which focused on questions about the psychological, neurological and genetic bases of this unique human biology.

In opening remarks, College of Sciences Dean Murray Gibson said language “is the most sophisticated complex human behavior that we still don’t understand.” Attempts to probe this behavior, he said, require diverse scientific perspectives. And if you’ve been reading this blog or paying attention to Northeastern research lately, you know that this is our strong suit. The symposium was intended to initiate that interdisciplinary dialogue critical to understanding language and its implications on social interactions and developmental disorders.

The first speaker, Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker, explores how our use of language reflects the inner workings of human consciousness. He focused his talk on indirect speech as a window into social relationships.

Overt speech, he explained, invariably turns private information into common knowledge. Humans like to maintain relationships with distinct boundaries. Indirect speech can help us do that by cloaking our intentions in euphemism and innuendo. He talked about something called “common knowledge,” which we need to protect differently in different circumstances.

Pinker’s work focuses on the external implications of language. But what happens when the biological foundations become compromised, as with dyslexia and aphasia? While commonly associated with reading, these disorders have their roots in speech processing.

“What does it mean to have a disorder of your social brain when you’re three months old?” asked the second speaker, Dr. Albert Galaburda, Chief of cognitive neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Galaburda’s ground breaking work has led to the identification of four genes important to dyslexia, all of which participate in brain development.

Mapping the linguistic genome could also lend insight into investigations like Pinker’s. The symposium’s last speaker, Simon Fisher, the director of Language & Genetics at the Max Planck Institute of psycholinguistics in the Netherlands and a fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, is behind one of the most exciting discoveries of our time, said Berent.

Fisher identified a gene implicated in linguistic communication in humans. The gene is also important to non-linguistic communications between animals such as zebra finches, who have a harder time learning songs when the gene is impaired.

Along with that of Galaburda and Pinker, Fisher’s multidisciplinary research is building some of the first bridges between genes, brains and spoken language.

The symposium highlighted the importance of such bridges for a variety of linguistic applications. From developing better speech language therapies to understanding how language affects human social interactions, genetic, neurological and behavioral investigations are all essential.

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