Archive for the ‘language’ Category

New research on the neural system of language

December 7, 2011

Neuroscientists have long known that particular areas of the brain are responsible for the comprehension and production of language. But new research points to the criticality of pathways between these areas for various components of language.

From a Science Daily article summarizing the research:

Two brain areas called Broca’s region and Wernicke’s region serve as the main computing hubs underlying language processing, with dense bundles of nerve fibers linking the two, much like fiber optic cables connecting computer servers. But while it was known that Broca’s and Wernicke’s region are connected by upper and a lower white matter pathways, most research had focused on the nerve cells clustered inside the two language-processing regions themselves.

MRI image shows Brocca's (yellow) and Wernicke's (purple) regions, connected by critical neural pathways. (Image credit: Stephen Wilson, Science Daily)

University of Arizona Professor of Speech and Hearing Stephen Wilson was one of the lead researchers:

If you have damage to the lower pathway, you have damage to the lexicon and semantics. You forget the name of things, you forget the meaning of words. But surprisingly, you’re extremely good at constructing sentences.

With damage to the upper pathway, the opposite is true; patients name things quite well, they know the words, they can understand them, they can remember them, but when it comes to figuring out the meaning of a complex sentence, they are going to fail.

Professor Wilson collaborated on the research with colleagues from the University of California at San Francisco and the Scientific Institute and University Hospital San Raffaele in Milan, Italy. The research was published in the journal Neuron.

More evidence that exercise keeps the brain fit

July 27, 2011

The NY Times picked up on new research that offers good news for older individuals hoping to stave off mental decline. Here at Be Amazing Learning, we work more frequently with children and young adults than seniors, but the same concepts of neuroplasticity are at play early and late in life.

The multi-year study, performed at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, showed that subjects who engaged in even modest exercise (walking around the block, gardening, cleaning) maintained cognitive function when compared to sedentary subjects.

That exercise can help the brain is not a particularly new concept (we have previously posted on the topic), but what the study showed (according to Professor Laura Middleton, the study’s lead author) that “vigorous exercise isn’t necessary to protect your mind. I think that’s exciting. It might inspire people who would be intimidated about the idea of quote-unquote exercising to just get up and move.”

Another study identified in the Times article indicates that even lifting weights (as opposed to aerobic exercise) can be an effective intervention. That study, published in Neurobiology of Aging, indicated that “light-duty weight training changes how well older women think and how blood flows within their brains.”

So the latest research indicates that exercise of any kind and any intensity can help stave off mental decline. So let’s get out there!

Studying Japanese yields clues for kids with dyslexia learning English

July 11, 2011

The Wall Street Journal reports on recent research into the use of character-based languages such as the Japanese language kanji.

Learners with dyslexia struggle with the association between letters and sounds in English (a language in which words are comprised of groups of sounds that readers decode). However, character-based languages, where the characters represent complete words or ideas, are mastered through memorization, a skill that many students with dyslexia have mastered to compensate for their decoding struggles.

One study featured in the WSJ article looked at fMRI brain scans of dyslexic students and discovered that they use the same area of the brain to read English as do readers of kanji, a character-based Japanese language. This is different from the area of the brain used by typically developing English readers (and readers of kana, another Japanese language in which characters represent sounds instead of words or ideas).

As the article notes, we don’t cure dyslexia by teaching students in a character-based language. But it does offer some insight into how these kids’ brains are working differently and how teachers might be able to deliver reading-based content more effectively.

We have a link to a fantastic dyslexia study on our Web site. The study, performed at Stanford, is very consistent with the findings discussed in the WSJ article, as it supports the idea that students with dyslexia tend to make reading a more visual task, while typically developing readers integrate auditory processing as well.


Great news! Parent’s language stumbles are good for kids!

April 27, 2011

It seems like most research studies we read about the impact parents have on the development of young children make us wish we had a do-over card. But here’s some refreshing news for those of us parents who doing the best we can: some of our mistakes can actually help our kids!

From Science Daily:

A team of cognitive scientists has good news for parents who are worried that they are setting a bad example for their children when they say “um” and “uh.” A study conducted at the University of Rochester’s Baby Lab shows that toddlers actually use their parents’ stumbles and hesitations (technically referred to as disfluencies) to help them learn language more efficiently.

For instance, say you’re walking through the zoo with your two-year-old and you are trying to teach him animal names. You point to the rhinoceros and say, “Look at the, uh, uh, rhinoceros.” It turns out that as you are fumbling for the correct word, you are also sending your child a signal that you are about to teach him something new, so he should pay attention, according to the researchers.

The conclusions are from a study published online on April 14 in the journal Developmental Science.

Quoted in the Science Daily article, lead study author Celeste Kidd, a graduate student at the University of Rochester, says “We’re not advocating that parents add disfluencies to their speech, but I think it’s nice for them to know that using these verbal pauses is OK — the “uh’s” and “um’s” are informative.”

If you’re interested in more about how parents can support their children’s language development, check out this post on the developing brain.

The Thirsty Linguist reviews Oliver Sacks’ latest book “The Mind’s Eye”

March 31, 2011

Doctor and author Oliver Sacks is known for bringing neuroscience to the masses. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings (which was made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams), Sacks explores neurological disorders with the writing skills of a novelist.

Our friend, the Thirsty Linguist, reviews Sacks’ latest book, The Mind’s Eye, which explores the human experience of vision:

As in some of his previous books, Sacks presents case histories of individuals suffering from neurological injury or disease, and uses these histories as a means to probe the capacities of the mind. Lilian Kallir, for example, is a pianist who loses the ability to read, even though the rest of her vision remains intact and, puzzingly, she can still write. Sacks follows Lilian’s story over a period of three years, describing the coping strategies she develops, such as color-coding items in her home, as well as the new talents that arise unexpectedly with her condition, such as the ability to re-arrange musical pieces in her mind without consulting a score. Howard Engel, featured in another case history, is a writer who also loses the ability to read, but he approaches his situation differently: he rejects audiobooks, refuses to give up the world of text, and painstakingly learns his ABCs all over again.

Lilian’s and Howard’s cases both suggest that the brain has a specific location dedicated to reading. But it is not at all obvious why this should be so. Unlike spoken language, which evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, written language is a relatively recent cultural invention that offered no survival advantage to humans in primitive societies. Plasticity offers a potential answer to this conundrum: we can and do use structures in the brain for purposes very different from those for which they evolved. Sacks casts a wide net to gather evidence for this idea. He describes case histories of nineteenth century neurologists, who treated patients with symptoms similar to Lilian’s and Howard’s. He cites evolutionary thinkers from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba, tracing the history of the notion of “exaptation,” a biological adaptation which gets put to a new use. He presents key results from imaging studies which demonstrate that different areas of the brain are active during reading versus listening. And he summarizes a computational study of over 100 writing systems which shows that, despite their diversity, these systems share basic visual signatures which resemble those found in natural settings.

The Mind’s Eye thus offers narrative science writing of the most satisfying kind. We delight in pedagogical moments because Sacks weaves them seamlessly into the case histories. We get drawn into the topics of evolution, brain imaging, and computation because we want to follow people like Lilian and Howard. “Make characters the matter of your narrative,” advises James Shreeve in A Field Guide for Science Writers, “and let the science spill from their relations.” Sacks does precisely that.

If Sacks’ work intrigues you, you might also be interested in:

TED Talk: Dr. Michael Merzenich on Rewiring the Brain

March 23, 2011

Dr. Michael Merzenich is a pioneer in brain plasticity research. In this TED Talk, recorded in 2004, Dr. Merzenich describes impairments to the brain’s processing ability, and how we can train the brain back to normal processing:

We now have a large body of literature that demonstrates that the fundamental problem that occurs in the majority of children that have early language impairments, and that are going to struggle to learn to read, is that their language processor is created in a defective form. And the reason that it rises in a defective form is because early in the baby’s brain’s life the machine process is noisy. It’s that simple. It’s a signal to noise problem. Okay? And there are a lot of things that contribute to that. There are numerous inherited faults that could make the machine process noisier.

Every sound the child hears uncorrected is muffled. It’s degraded. The child’s native language is such a case is not English. It’s not Japanese. It’s muffled English. It’s degraded Japanese. It’s crap. And the brain specializes for it. It creates a representation of language crap. And then the child is stuck with it.

Now the crap doesn’t just happen in the ear. It can also happen in the brain. The brain itself can be noisy. It’s commonly noisy. There are many inherited faults that can make it noisier. And the native language for a child with such a brain is degraded. It’s not English. It’s noisy English. And that results in defective representations of sounds of words, not normal, a different strategy, by a machine that has different space constants. And you can look in the brain of such a child and record those time constants. They are about an order of magnitude longer, about 11 times longer in duration on average, than in a normal child. Space constants are about three times greater. Such a child will have memory and cognitive deficits in this domain. Of course they will. Because as a receiver of language, they are receiving it and representing it. And in information it’s representing crap. And they are going to have poor reading skills. Because reading is dependent upon the translation of word sounds into this orthographic or visual representational form. If you don’t have a brain representation of word sounds that translation makes no sense. And you are going to have corresponding abnormal neurology.

The point is is that you can train the brain out of this. A way to think about this is you can actually re-refine the processing capacity of the machinery by changing it. Changing it in detail. It takes about 30 hours on the average. And we’ve accomplished that in about 430,000 kids today. Actually about 15,000 children are being trained as we speak. And actually when you look at the impacts, the impacts are substantial.

Think of a classroom of children in the language arts. Think of the children on the slow side of the class. We have the potential to move most of those children to the middle or to the right side. In addition to accurate language training it also fixes memory and cognition speech fluency and speech production, And an important language dependent skill is enabled by this training — that is to say reading. And to a large extent it fixes the brain. You can look down in the brain of a child. in a variety of tasks that scientists have at Stanford, and MIT, and UCSF, and UCLA, and a number of other institutions. And children operating in various language behaviors, or in various reading behaviors, you see for the most extent, for most children, their neuronal responses, complexly abnormal before you start, are normalized by the training.

There’s some stuff about monkeys in the middle that went a little over our heads, but the talk is worth the 20 minute investment.

Happy National Grammar Day!

March 4, 2011

Grammar gets a bad rap, but today, National Grammar Day, we celebrate it!

If learning to read and write is like packing for a trip around the world, grammar is your socks: something you need, but nothing you’re going to get too excited about.

But grammar (understanding the elements of language, including proper word order, syntax, vocabulary, prefixes and suffixes, plurals, and subject-verb agreement) is critically important for strong listening comprehension and reading comprehension. Knowledge of grammar allows students to understand the different meanings conveyed by different sentence structures and grammatical markers. Students with a better understanding of grammar conventions derive more meaning from what they hear in the classroom, and more easily master reading and writing skills.

So today, just for today, celebrate grammar! Check out for a playlist of songs with grammatically incorrect lyrics and grammar day poems and stories.

Learning to Read vs. Reading to Learn

March 1, 2011

Around 2nd or 3rd grade, students begin the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. In the process, they open their minds to a flood of critical information across disciplines. And to incorporate this new knowledge, students must have mastered the basics of reading and achieved automaticity.

At Scientific Learning’s Science of Learning blog, Terri Zezula addresses the criticality of automaticity for students to begin the transition to reading to learn:

In achieving automaticity, we free our brains – our working memories – from the details of the task, allowing us to use that brain power to do more, building on those sets of automatic skills. For our students, achieving automaticity  in reading is essential not only to their becoming effective readers, but becoming effective all-around learners. The majority of students make the shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” around second or third grade. At this stage, their reading skills have developed to a point of automaticity where they no longer need to use their working memory to facilitate the task of reading, and they can use that memory for things like interpretation, comprehension and creative thinking.

On the other hand, continues Zezula:

Imagine what learning becomes for the struggling student who does not develop this automaticity alongside his or her fellow students. As others begin to learn more and more from their reading, the struggling reader must engage their working memory in the challenge of getting through the letters and words of each sentence as opposed to using that valuable memory to glean meanings and assimilate information. As their reading skills lag, their overall ability to learn suffers.

A previous post here at Thoughts from Be Amazing Learning addressed the same phenomemon:

We hear from parents a lot that their child does just fine with the mechanics of reading (decoding, spelling, etc.), but struggles with comprehension. Reading comprehension is a difficult task, as it represents the synthesis of so many language and literacy skills, from phonemic awareness to sequencing and working memory. As such, it takes time and a lot of practice to develop reading comprehension skills.

It’s important to note, however, that while kids may be struggling with comprehension, the root cause of their struggle may be more foundational in nature. For example, a child may decode well, but if his brain is working overtime on decoding, there may just not be anything left when it comes time to comprehend what he’s just read. Comprehension requires things like a working memory that’s developed enough to remember the beginning of a sentence when you get to the end. Or the first sentence of a paragraph when you get to the last. But if we can get a child’s brain to process more efficiently, the mechanics of reading become easier, which frees up energy for more complex tasks like comprehension.

The good news is that we can help kids’ brains process more efficiently. Just like we exercise our bodies in the gym or on the track to build physical fitness, we can build brain fitness through targeted exercises that adapt to our abilities. If you have a child struggling with reading comprehension or other learning challenges, visit our Web site at or call (800) 792-4809 to learn how developing foundational cognitive skills can help your child successfully make the transition to reading to learn.

TED Talk on the Linguistic Genius of Babies

February 17, 2011

In this great 10-minute lecture, Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, shares her findings about how babies learn one language over another — by listening to the humans around them and “taking statistics” on the sounds they need to know.

Experiments and brain imaging show how 6-month-old babies use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world. Dr. Kuhl’s work has played a major role in demonstrating how early exposure to language alters the brain. It has implications for critical periods in development, for bilingual education and reading readiness, for developmental disabilities involving language, and for research on computer understanding of speech.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

February 16, 2011

If you want to learn, scientists say, put pen to paper.

A recent article in Business Week cited research in France and Norway, which concluded that “writing by hand is actually a very different sensory experience than typing on a keyboard, with each activating distinctly different parts of the brain.”

Study co-author, associate professor Anne Mangen from the University of Stavangers Reading Centre in Stavanger, Norway, says:

Tests reveal that the act of handwriting — literally the feeling of touching a pen to paper — appears to imprint a “motor memory” in the sensorimotor region of the brain. In turn, this process promotes the visual recognition of letters and words, suggesting that the two seemingly separate acts of reading and writing are, in fact, linked.

In the study, participants were taught a new alphabet. Those who studied by writing out the letters by hand learned significantly more than those who studied only on a computer. Additionally, “brain scans revealed that while learning by handwriting prompted activity in a particular part of the brain known as Broca’s area, learning by keyboarding prompted little or no such activity.” Broca’s area is the portion of the brain most associated with speech production.

If you’re interested in more research-based study tips, check out these previous posts from our blog:

Hat tip to Posit Science for the link to the Business Week article.

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