Stephen Fry has embarked on a series of documentaries about language, beginning with the evolution of language which he calls ‘the final frontier’ of human understanding. The typical documentary hype is all here: Stephen Pinker sits in a gigantic fish tank with bits of taxidermied brain lying around like sandwiches; Michael Tomasello appears to live in a tropical primate enclose; Fry conducts his studies from a medieval study complete with quills, a CGI tree of languages and a talking parrot.
Despite this, it was actually a coherent and comprehensive review of topics in the field: Language versus communication in animals, phisological constraints of language, creativity and the desire to share information, the pragmatic origins of language, FoxP2 and the poverty of the stimulus. Bilingualism is even added to this cannon of interesting ways to approach the origins of language, somewhat tempered by Fry’s question “wouldn’t it be better if everybody spoke Esperanto?”.
Mercifully, Fry seems to be actually interested rather than trying to build up the conspiracy plot format endemic in other science documentaries. There are some odd diversions to a Klingon version of Hamlet, a trip to a German Christmas market and a slightly awkward re-enactment of a feral child case, but all in all the message is not objectionable: There is a graded difference between non-human and human communication, it’s partly genetic and partly cultural and languages continually change under pressures to be learned and to express new ideas. There are also welcome additions of the original Wug test and, of course, Fry & Laurie’s seminal sketch about language.
Overall, I’d say it was the second best documentary the BBC have made about the origins of language.
In an effort to update this blog regularly, I’ve decided to take the lazy route and post up a list of abstracts. This will only happen once a week, but it’s a useful resource (for me at least), and will usually be an indicator of what articles I’m going to write about in the near future.
Science Daily claims: Simple math explains dramatic beak shape variation in Darwin’s finches. Key paragraph: “Using digitization techniques, the researchers found that 14 distinct beak shapes, that at first glance look unrelated, could be categorized into three broader, group shapes. Despite the striking variety of sizes and shapes, mathematically, the beaks within a particular group only differ by their scales.”
Be sure to check out the Kahn Academy — a not-for-profit organisation that provides some great educational resources. For those of you interested in demographics and the quantitative analysis of movement, then here’s a whole section on differential equations.
How reliable are fMRI results? Another question I’m not so sure about. However, Prefrontal.org has a full paper on providing something of an answer. The key sentence: “the results from fMRI research may be somewhat less reliable than many researchers implicitly believe.”
Lastly, Jeff Elman, UCSD professor of cognitive science and co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, presents a lecture on some of the latest research in our ability to use language and why it is so far removed from other animal communication systems:
Hierarchical structure building can be achieved without Broca’s area involvement.
I’ve only just finished reading the post and, despite having some thoughts on the topic, I’m going to read the actual paper in question (Disentangling syntax and intelligibility in auditory language comprehension) before commenting. Especially since the authors, Friederici et al, don’t seem to arrive at the same conclusions as the bloggers over at Talking Brains. Still, as far as I can tell, this is only looking at syntactic information within speech, and doesn’t really tell us anything about the processing of hierarchically organised sequences in other linguistic (e.g. written language) and non-linguistic (e.g. tool manufacturing) domains.
Here’s the abstract for the paper in question:
Studies of the neural basis of spoken language comprehension typically focus on aspects of auditory processing by varying signal intelligibility, or on higher-level aspects of language processing such as syntax. Most studies in either of these threads of language research report brain activation including peaks in the superior temporal gyrus (STG) and/or the superior temporal sulcus (STS), but it is not clear why these areas are recruited in functionally different studies. The current fMRI study aims to disentangle the functional neuroanatomy of intelligibility and syntax in an orthogonal design. The data substantiate functional dissociations between STS and STG in the left and right hemispheres: first, manipulations of speech intelligibility yield bilateral mid-anterior STS peak activation, whereas syntactic phrase structure violations elicit strongly left-lateralized mid STG and posterior STS activation. Second, ROI analyses indicate all interactions of speech intelligibility and syntactic correctness to be located in the left frontal and temporal cortex, while the observed right-hemispheric activations reflect less specific responses to intelligibility and syntax. Our data demonstrate that the mid-to-anterior STS activation is associated with increasing speech intelligibility, while the mid-to-posterior STG/STS is more sensitive to syntactic information within the speech.