He said she said

A psy­chol­o­gist, a geneti­cist and a neu­rol­o­gist walk into Curry Ballroom.…sorry that was lame. I thought it sounded like the start of a joke, but I guess not.

Anyway, it’s true. A couple weeks ago three leading scholars in the field of lin­guis­tics par­tic­i­pated in a lan­guage sym­po­sium orga­nized by Iris Berent of the Psy­chology Department.

Lan­guage is a defining fea­ture of the human species, she said at the start of the day-​​long pro­gram, called “The human capacity for lan­guage,” which focused on ques­tions about the psy­cho­log­ical, neu­ro­log­ical and genetic bases of this unique human biology.

In opening remarks, Col­lege of Sci­ences Dean Murray Gibson said lan­guage “is the most sophis­ti­cated com­plex human behavior that we still don’t under­stand.” Attempts to probe this behavior, he said, require diverse sci­en­tific per­spec­tives. And if you’ve been reading this blog or paying atten­tion to North­eastern research lately, you know that this is our strong suit. The sym­po­sium was intended to ini­tiate that inter­dis­ci­pli­nary dia­logue crit­ical to under­standing lan­guage and its impli­ca­tions on social inter­ac­tions and devel­op­mental disorders.

The first speaker, Har­vard Uni­ver­sity psy­chology pro­fessor Steven Pinker, explores how our use of lan­guage reflects the inner work­ings of human con­scious­ness. He focused his talk on indi­rect speech as a window into social relationships.

Overt speech, he explained, invari­ably turns pri­vate infor­ma­tion into common knowl­edge. Humans like to main­tain rela­tion­ships with dis­tinct bound­aries. Indi­rect speech can help us do that by cloaking our inten­tions in euphemism and innu­endo. He talked about some­thing called “common knowl­edge,” which we need to pro­tect dif­fer­ently in dif­ferent circumstances.

Pinker’s work focuses on the external impli­ca­tions of lan­guage. But what hap­pens when the bio­log­ical foun­da­tions become com­pro­mised, as with dyslexia and aphasia? While com­monly asso­ci­ated with reading, these dis­or­ders have their roots in speech processing.

What does it mean to have a dis­order of your social brain when you’re three months old?” asked the second speaker, Dr. Albert Gal­aburda, Chief of cog­ni­tive neu­rology at Beth Israel Dea­coness Med­ical Center. Galaburda’s ground breaking work has led to the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of four genes impor­tant to dyslexia, all of which par­tic­i­pate in brain development.

Map­ping the lin­guistic genome could also lend insight into inves­ti­ga­tions like Pinker’s. The symposium’s last speaker, Simon Fisher, the director of Lan­guage & Genetics at the Max Planck Insti­tute of psy­cholin­guis­tics in the Nether­lands and a fellow at the Well­come Trust Centre for Human Genetics, is behind one of the most exciting dis­cov­eries of our time, said Berent.

Fisher iden­ti­fied a gene impli­cated in lin­guistic com­mu­ni­ca­tion in humans. The gene is also impor­tant to non-​​linguistic com­mu­ni­ca­tions between ani­mals such as zebra finches, who have a harder time learning songs when the gene is impaired.

Along with that of Gal­aburda and Pinker, Fisher’s mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary research is building some of the first bridges between genes, brains and spoken language.

The sym­po­sium high­lighted the impor­tance of such bridges for a variety of lin­guistic appli­ca­tions. From devel­oping better speech lan­guage ther­a­pies to under­standing how lan­guage affects human social inter­ac­tions, genetic, neu­ro­log­ical and behav­ioral inves­ti­ga­tions are all essential.