Neurocognitive perspectives on language research

Laura Kaczer


Language is a distinctively human capacity that requires the involvement of multiple cognitive networks with functionally distinct contributions. Based on neuroimaging techniques, we are now able to study the neural basis for the processing of phonological, semantic, and syntactic information. To be able to grasp this complexity, language research needs the dialogue between different disciplines such as linguistics, psychology, biophysics, computational science, and anthropology, thus representing a highly interdisciplinary area of research. In this symposium, we will bring together researchers with different backgrounds to discuss the mysteries of how the human brain acquires and represents language and speech. In addition, we hope that this symposium could contribute to promote the collaboration between neuroscience and language-related topics in our community.

Neural and cognitive correlates of the speech auditory-motor synchronization

M. Florencia Assaneo

Instituto de Neurobiología, UNAM

The interaction between perception and production has been widely studied in the field of cognitive neurosciences, with speech being a case of particular interest. In this direction, it has been demonstrated – by more than one research team – that producing speech modulates the activity of brain areas related to speech perception and vice versa – passive listening to speech actives frontal areas responsible of production. Despite the fact that the speech acoustic signal presents temporal regularities – and that these have been demonstrated crucial to achieve intelligibility – the study of the interaction of the rhythms that characterize the systems of production and perception of speech has been relegated. During this talk I will focus precisely on this aspect. First, I will introduce a deceptively simple behavioral test capable of assessing the individuals’ degree of auditory-motor synchronization of speech. Secondly, I will show which structural and functional brain features are predicted by the test outcome. And finally, I will examine how a high -or low- level of auditory-motor synchronization affects different cognitive abilities.

Beyond the 0.001%: linguistic diversity, cognitive neuroscience, and the foundations of the language sciences

Damian Blasi

Harvard University


Most research in language involves a handful of the over 6,500 languages spoken and signed in the world today, with Germanic and Romance languages accounting for most of the lucky set. This has biased our language sciences in at least three critical ways. First, we underestimate the nature and the extent of the variation that could exist across languages. Second, we have focused on linguistic phenomena that are especially relevant for the few languages that have been researched in depth – sometimes by sidelining far more cross-linguistically frequent linguistic aspects. And third, we effectively assume that, when investigating human behavior and cognition, the language(s) used by individuals is largely irrelevant. In this presentation I will argue that the time is ripe for a change in the field – and that we should collectively consider involving other languages in our theorizing and in science-making more in general. I will illustrate this by briefly describing some interesting cross-linguistic differences that have emerged in the cognitive neuroscience of language literature in the last few years. Finally, I will discuss how Latin America is particularly well positioned for leading these changes by integrating the (often neglected) native languages and their users.

Beyond the lonely word: Discourse-level approaches to basic and translational neurolinguistics

Adolfo García

Centro de Neurociencias Cognitivas (Universidad de San Andrés), CONICET y Global Brain Health Institute (University of California, San Francisco)


Over the last 40 years, neurolinguistics has honed our understanding of language (dys)functions through studies on diverse stimulus types. Yet, most studies have employed (pseudo)randomized sequences of isolated, decontextualized words or sentences, neglecting more naturalistic manifestations of language. Do key findings in such traditional paradigms generalize onto context-rich materials, such as narrative texts? And can specific neural disorders be detected by analyzing spontaneous speech? In this presentation, I will survey recent findings from discourse-level approaches to basic and translational neurolinguistics. Our team has developed a multi-methodological framework for healthy persons and neurological patients, yielding new evidence to address the two questions mentioned above. First, we have shown that the same neural networks engaged by specific single-item categories (e.g., action-related and socially-laden words) are critically recruited when such stimuli are embedded in context-rich, cohesive, and coherent stories. Second, our machine learning studies suggest that fine-grained acoustic (e.g., articulatory) and textual (e.g., semantic) properties of spontaneous verbal production allow identifying persons with different neurodegenerative disorders and predicting symptom severity. These lines of work pave the way for a naturalistic neurolinguistic agenda, expanding recent neurocognitive models and revealing candidate markers of highly prevalent brain diseases.

The role of intrinsic reward on language learning

Antoni Rodriguez-Fornells

University of Barcelona / ICREA / IDIBELL


During the last decade we have accrued important knowledge regarding the cognitive and neural mechanisms involved in the hard process of learning a new language, being these studies essential to understand how the brain of bilinguals is sculpted. It is still unknown which are the neural processes underlying the human drive to learn a language and what maintains this effortful activity. Recent models proposed that during evolution, emerging language-learning mechanisms might have been glued to phylogenetically older subcortical reward centers, reinforcing human motivation to learn a new language. Supporting this hypothesis, we showed that adult learners exhibited robust functional MRI activation in core reward-pleasure centers (ventral striatum) when successfully learning the meaning of new-words. These results provided the first neural evidences of a strong coupling between neocortical language regions and the subcortical reward system during language learning. Following this research, we observed that successful active language learning (without external feedback) triggered also the activation of midbrain dopaminergic circuits and the hippocampus. We believe this intrinsically motivated-learning mechanism might be crucial for boosting formation of long-term memories, specially in our everyday lives, as we continually acquire new knowledge in the absence of any obvious immediate reward.