How children’s brains acquire language

In adults, injury to the areas of the brain that are responsible for language skills (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) result in loss of language abilities. However, injuries to those same areas in early childhood don’t seem to impact language development in a negative way. As a result, researchers have long thought that a different area of the brain was active in language acquisition. But new research from UC San Diego, published in the Oxford University Press journal Cerebral Cortex says otherwise: “similar left frontotemporal areas are used for encoding lexico-semantic information throughout the life span, from the earliest stages of word learning.”

From a recent Science Daily article summarizing the research:

Combining the cutting-edge technologies of MRI and MEG, scientists at the University of California, San Diego show that babies just over a year old process words they hear with the same brain structures as adults, and in the same amount of time. Moreover, the researchers found that babies were not merely processing the words as sounds, but were capable of grasping their meaning.

Study co-author Kathleen Travis, quoted in the Science Daily article:

“Babies are using the same brain mechanisms as adults to access the meaning of words from what is thought to be a mental ‘database’ of meanings, a database which is continually being updated right into adulthood.”

And from co-author Eric Halgren, also in the article:

“Our study shows that the neural machinery used by adults to understand words is already functional when words are first being learned. This basic process seems to embody the process whereby words are understood, as well as the context for learning new words.”

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