Universals of Language

In my last post, we looked at a wonderful paper, “Universals in Learning to Read Across Languages and Writing Systems“, that outlines operating principles of reading and writing across languages, as well as some key variations. Continuing on this theme, I wanted to highlight another recent paper, “The universal language network: A cross-linguistic investigation spanning 45 languages and 11 language families.”

The project is cool — the researchers have started a cross-linguistic database of brain scans, and their initial findings demonstrate a strong universal neural basis for language across multiple languages. Here’s the key finding that stood out to me:

In summary, we have here established that several key properties of the neural architecture of language—including its topography, lateralization to the left hemisphere, strong within network functional integration, and selectivity for linguistic processing—hold across speakers of diverse languages spanning 11 language families; and the variability we observed across languages is lower than the inter-individual variability. The language brain network therefore appears well-suited to support the broadly common features of languages, shaped by biological and cultural evolution.

(Ayyash et al., 2021)

I found out about this paper from this Twitter thread from one of the researchers, Ev Fedorenko, and her thread also provides a neat summary of the project:

As this database of brain scans across languages is built out, it will be interesting to see what specific variations between languages and neural architecture may arise. For example, another recent paper, “Difference Between Children and Adults in the Print-speech Coactivated Network,” examined the brain scans of native Chinese speakers and found some variations from past studies in the brains of developing readers, most likely due to the difference in writing systems in terms of the lack of grapheme-phoneme correspondence for Chinese characters, as well as how a single pronunciation can have many different meanings represented by different visual characters.

Taken together, our findings indicate that print-speech convergence is generally language-universal in adults, but it shows some language-specific features in developing readers.

(He et al., 2021)

Overall, it’s fascinating to see how current research converges on the significant universality across languages in terms of how literacy develops, and exciting to see that specific differences between languages and writing systems are beginning to be studied with greater specificity.

As Perfetti and Verhoeven tidily pointed out in their paper:

The story of learning to read thus is one of universals and particulars: (i) Universals, because writing maps onto language, no matter the details of the system, creating a common challenge in learning that mapping, and because experience leads to familiarity-based indentification across languages. (ii) Particulars, because it does matter for learning how different levels of language – morphemes, syllables, phonemes – are engaged; this in turn depends on the structure of the language and how its written form accommodates this structure.

(Verhoeven & Perfetti, 2021)

P.S. I have started a Discord server to provide a venue for continuing and deepening conversations on language and literacy between this site and my Twitter account. Twitter is great for discovery, but limited in opportunities for free form dialogue. Hop over onto Discord and share your thoughts on this research, or just say hi! https://discord.gg/VxpWH6EnQX


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