Different Grammatical Structures Use Different Parts of the Brain

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All languages have a vocabulary and a grammatical structure. However, the type of grammatical structure varies depending on which language you are looking at. In some languages, like English, the order of the words largely determines the meaning of a sentence. However, in other languages, like German, word order is more flexible because the language uses “tags,” like prefixes or suffixes, to make the meaning of the sentence clear.

If trying to learn a language with a different grammatical structure than the one you were born speaking makes your head feel like it’s going to explode at first, there may be a very good reason: you’re having to use a different part of your brain than you normally would.

In American Sign Language (ASL), the meaning of a sentence can be determined either by word order or by “tags.” So, the same sentence can be signed two ways-either using word order or using tags. In a study performed at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, researchers found that individuals fluent in ASL used a different part of the brain to comprehend a sentence signed with tags than they did to understand the same sentence signed using word order.

The researchers showed 14 deaf individuals, all native ASL signers,a video of a study coauthor signing the same sentences in two different ways. While the study participants watched the video, the researchers used functional MRI scans to monitor their brain activity.

To the authors of the study, the fact that different areas of the brain were used to process the different types of syntax implies that we comprehend language using neural structures that originally evolved for other purposes. As coauthor Aaron Newman told Science News:

“We’re using and adapting the machinery we already have in our brains. Obviously we’re doing something different [from other animals], because we’re able to learn language. But it’s not because some little black box evolved specially in our brain that does only language, and nothing else.”