New PLoS Research Argues for Grammar-Specific Areas in the Brain

This interesting new paper by Fonteneau & van der Lely presents evidence that there is some specific language structure in the brain that deals with syntactic processing. They present evidence from children with SLIs (Specific Language Impairments); a condition that affects up to 7% of children and causes devlopmental problems in the children’s language learning. Interestingly there is increasing evidence that this linguistic impairment has a genetic basis. The research used novel electrophysiological data to demonstrate that the grammar impairment had a neurological basis.

“The findings indicate that grammatical neural circuitry underlying language is a developmentally unique system in the functional architecture of the brain, and this complex higher cognitive system can be selectively impaired… The results argue for grammar being a highly specific, specialised subsystem in the human brain and a particular developmental pathway to this exclusive neural system.”

They make an explicit link between this evidence and the debate in evolutionary linguistics about the the extent to which syntactic knowledge is represented in the brain. Yet more evidence that language is innate, but as has been mentioned before, innateness of the language faculty, and innateness of the rules of grammar, are not the same thing. I hope there will be more neurobiological evidence like this presented in future.

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