Language and the Brain, Psychology of Language

Language and Your Brain

Back when I was living in Chicago and I first learned about the field of linguistics, I knew that before I committed myself to started a graduate program I needed to do a sort of ‘test run.’ Luckily, the School of Continuing Studies at Northwestern University was offering a course in the Psychology of Language. We discussed a wide range of topics, from language acquisition, to how people are able to comprehend language, to how language can be affected by injury or illness, and (most interestingly) how the brain can respond and adapt.

Sometimes, when certain parts of the brain are damaged due to a stroke or trauma, the result is some kind of aphasia. People with aphasia can have difficulty understanding written or spoken words, or they’re unable to find the words to express what they’re thinking (anomia). There was a fairly recent example of this in the Showtime series Masters of Sex. Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), diagnosed with cervical cancer that has spread and begun to impair her cognitive function, would occasionally use the wrong word without realizing it or would struggle to find a word. Unfortunately for the fictional Dr. DePaul, her condition wouldn’t improve. But there are people who’ve suffered from an illness or injury who are able to recover, even if that recovery takes months or years.

And as remarkable as it is for the brain to find ways to compensate for these kinds of unfortunate circumstances, there are times when the brain’s response is something unexpected. There are documented cases of people suffering some kind of brain damage and waking up speaking with an accent, like a woman from Illinois who was anaesthetized for a dental procedure and woke up speaking with an accent that blends English, Irish, and “a bit of other European accents” (how’s that for a vague description?). Or even more remarkable, this man who woke up from a coma being able to speak fluent Mandarin, when he only had high school level proficiency prior to the accident that put him in the coma.

To learn more about aphasia, check out the National Aphasia Association at www.aphasia.org.

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