A study showed that brain activity while speaking varies between simple and complex grammatical forms
Talking is something that appears to be an easy process, which works almost on its own. However, our brain has a lot of work to do when we construct a sentence. “In addition, languages differ in myriad ways, and it also means that there are differences in how we plan what we want to say in different languages,” says Baltazar Bickel, senior author of the study and professor at the University of Zurich.
And if some languages seem easier, it is because they make less distinction in their grammar. While English is always used (for example, in “tall tree” and “snow covers the tree”), German distinguishes between der (subject) and den (object) (for example, in “Der Baum ist groß” and ” Schnee bedeckt den Baum ”).
Brain analysis before speaking
In order to do so, researchers at the University of Zurich, in collaboration with international colleagues, measured the brain activity of Hindi speakers as they described various images. This is the first time that brain processes have been studied while mapping sentences before speaking with high temporal accuracy. “So far, similar methods have only been used for plotting single words, but not full sentences,” explains Sebastian Sapp, lead author of the study.
End with many possibilities
The researchers discovered that although language may seem “easier” to us at first glance, it actually requires more work from our neurons. And they found that having fewer grammatical differences makes planning particularly demanding of the brain and requiring more neural activity. The likely reason for this is that fewer differences mean more options are left for speakers of how to proceed with the sentence.
“This, however, has a crucial advantage for speakers: languages with fewer nuances allow speakers to commit to the entire sentence only late in the planning process,” adds Sebastian Sapp. This finding contributes to explaining why languages with fewer grammatical differences are often found among the world’s languages, which was shown by a previous study of the same research group.
The research is part of the NCCR Evolution Language, a new national research center that has set itself the goal of unraveling the biological foundations of language, its evolutionary past, and the challenges posed by new technologies.
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