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What Is a Language Module?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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The language module is a hypothetical area of the brain dedicated to language understanding and production. It is believed to be part of the cognitive system, but its existence and location have not been proven. If it exists, it governs the brain’s ability to develop complex language systems. It would help explain one of the two important differentiations between humans and other animals: complex language and tools.

A human brain governs many of the body’s functions and is believed to be the source of consciousness. The brain is hypothetically divided up into modules. A module is an area with a series of related functions such as memory, perception and movement. Studies into the functions of these modules are largely dependent on the effects of brain damage to specific areas of the brain and the resulting loss of function.

A language module would require cooperation from other areas of the brain. Human language ability seems to come from different areas of the brain, with a common area in the middle. This is the Sylvian Fissure, which is thought to be the location of the language module. It fits between the Broca and Wernicke areas.

The Broca area sits towards the front of the brain, while the Wernicke area is towards the back. It was originally thought that the Broca area was purely productive, which means neurologists believed it produced speech. They also believed the Wernicke area was purely receptive in that it receives and understands linguistic information. It is now believed that the Broca area also plays a part in comprehension.

Both areas, when damaged, cause a problem called aphasia. Aphasia is where the patient is unable to connect words to objects. The effects can be total loss of speech and object-name recognition or it can be a minor effect. Minor effects slow the speaker’s ability to speak, as words are often lost on the tip of the tongue.

If a language module existed, it would show up when a specific area of the brain was damaged and a patient lost his or her language abilities. The lack of such damage suggests that language comprehension and production is diffused across the brain. The existence of a language module would also play a huge part in the ongoing discussions over language acquisition. There are two main theories put forward by linguists and linguistic philosophers such as Noam Chomsky. Social interaction postulates that nurture and nature play a part in a child’s development, while relational frame theory (RFT) believes language acquisition is totally nurtured.

If nature is important in language acquisition, then it suggests the brain is pre-programmed to a certain degree. Chomsky believes in the idea of universal grammar. This theory suggests the brain has a simple set of syntax rules it uses to process new vocabulary in children. Chomsky’s evidence of this idea is the fact that all children, of varied backgrounds and abilities, converge in terms of language ability at the age of 5. If universal grammar existed, then a language module or some other part of the brain would have to control this function.

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