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From thought to language

Communicating in Words

Original modules
Experiment : Attempts To Teach Language to Primates Attempts To Teach Language to Primates

A Summer School on Animal Sentience and Cognition

Females have an advantage over males as regards several different kinds of verbal ability. For example, females’ speech is more fluid: they can pronounce more words or sentences in a given amount of time. Also, language disorders are more common among boys than among girls, regardless of the type of education received. For example, 4 times more boys than girls suffer from stuttering, dyslexia, and autism.

The males’ higher levels of testosterone, which delays the development of the left hemisphere, might partly explain these differences, though other factors may also come into play.

Accroding to a stduy by Cmabrigde Uvinertisy, the odrer of the ltteers in a wrod is not ipmrotnat; the olny ipmrotnat thnig is that the frist and lsat ltteers be in the rihgt palce. The rset can be in toatl dsiaarry and you can sitll raed the wrods wtih no pborelm. That’s bacesue the hamun biran does not raed erevy ltteer istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Are you outraged at the number of spelling mistakes in the preceding paragraph? Well, don’t let that stop you from appreciating how well your brain works, because those mistakes didn’t keep you from reading and understanding the paragraph anyway!


All living beings communicate. In fact, the moment two animals encounter each other, they exchange visual, auditory, and olfactory signals that create mental images in their nervous systems. Every animal thus constructs its own mental representation of the world, to which it responds through adaptive behaviour.

Some species communicate through a code of gestures; the “dance”of the bees is one example. Other species communicate through a code of sounds—primates, for instance, use their vocal cords to produce various auditory signals. Compared with visual signals, auditory signals have two advantages: they can be perceived at night and over longer distances.

Human language, which also uses sounds, is thus only one form of communication among many. But it is a very sophisticated one: to speak with other people is to arbitrarily agree that particular series of sounds designate particular things. The big advantage of spoken language over grunts and cries is that this precise association between arbitrary combinations of sounds and objects lets speakers refer to these objects even when they are not physically present.

For these arbitrary conventions to make sense, a group of humans must agree to them. Every one of the many different languages spoken in the world constitutes a set of agreed-upon conventions that establish equivalences between sounds and things. We can thus say that the use of an articulate language is the characteristic that defines the human species: there is no human society that does not have a language, and no species that has a language except human beings.

The production and understanding of language thus constitute one of the most specific functions of the human brain. A parrot can imitate the sounds of human language but will never communicate abstract concepts with these sounds. Similarly, experimental attempts to teach great apes the rudiments of language have met with rather limited success (follow the Experiment module link to the left).

So what is the connection between thought and language in human beings? When we think, do we really always use language to do so? And if we do, why is it still often so hard to express our thoughts clearly? Might speaking a given language predispose people to think in a certain way? What about deaf people who communicate with sign language: when they are thinking to themselves, do they use signs?

Though it is hard to evaluate precisely how language contributes to the development of our thoughts, we do know that it remains the tool par excellence for sharing these thoughts with other people.

Studies have shown that among heterosexual couples, certain communication problems arise because men and women use language for different purposes. Each sex therefore applies its own criteria to interpret what the other is saying, which can result in misunderstandings.

For example, women may misconstrue men’s natural tendency to be less verbally expressive in conjugal relationships as a sign of rejection or indifference. Likewise, men may tend to misinterpret women’s desire to discuss these relationships as an attempt to control them. Another classic example is when a woman simply wants to talk about her problems, and her male partner immediately starts offering solutions.

Some authors see communication between male and female partners as so challenging that it amounts to an attempt at intercultural communication!

Link : La guerre des sexes


Link : LANGAGE ORAL Link : Le développement du langage de bébé de 0 à 12 mois Link : De 1 à 6 mois, le temps des areu Link : De 6 à 12 mois, le temps du babil
Link : Le développement du langage Link : Les conquérants du langage Link : DISCRIMINATION DES PHONEMES PAR LES NOUVEAU-NES
Original modules
Experiment : The Language Abilities of the Fetus The Language Abilities of the Fetus

When children are learning to speak, they do not immediately master all the subtle articulatory movements involved in making the sounds of their language. Thus, until at least age 5, it is quite common and entirely normal for children to say things like “wowwipop”(lollipop), “betht” (best), and “twees” (trees).

What are the relative roles of heredity and environment in the acquisition of language? First of all, it seems obvious that language is not completely genetic. Human beings speak a great many different languages, and young children can learn any of them easily if exposed to them early enough in life. But the opposite is just as true: children cannot learn any language unless they are exposed to it during a very specific critical period that is genetically determined.

There are several other universal characteristics that are inherent in language or in language learning. Consequently, as is so often the case with human behaviours, the true nature of language is a combination of nature and nurture.

Link : D'après le livre Comment la parole vient aux enfants, de Bénédicte de Boysson-Bardies. Ed.Odile Jacob Experience : Le cerveau des nourrissons visualisé par l'imagerie cerebrale Tool : Chomsky's Universal Grammar


Unlike learning to walk, where you can name the exact date that a baby first lets go of its parent’s hand and walks on its own, learning to speak a language is a gradual process that spans a number of years. But it still represents a kind of minor miracle as the child’s speech becomes richer and more articulate every day.

To understand how a child starts learning to speak, we must go back and see how its senses begin to develop during the first weeks of life in the womb (follow the Experiment module link to the left), because it is through these senses that the child will construct its first mental representations of the world, which it will subsequently refine by means of language.

Once the child is born, its memory develops and helps it to move beyond the “here and now” limits of the sensory world. The child discovers memories of pleasant and unpleasant events and learns how to act on other people’s minds to reinvoke the pleasant sensations while avoiding the unpleasant ones. The first way that babies do this is through their repertoire of facial expressions, cries, and babbling. These are called the prelinguistic stages of communication, and they correspond roughly to the first year of postnatal life.

Though not all children go through the same stages at the same ages, scientists have been able to determine some approximate ages for various milestones in language development.

For the first two months after birth, babies make only reflexive or quasi-reflexive vocalizations—a mixture of cries and vegetative sounds (yawns, sighs, etc.).

At around 3 months, the baby’s language is best described as babbling—sounds produced in no specific way. The child is thus producing its first rudimentary syllables at just about the same time as its first smile, which is the first sign of social communication.

From 3 to 8 months, the baby’s babbling evolves. The baby starts playing with its voice, producing sounds that are very high-pitched, very low-pitched, very loud, or very soft.

Between 5 and 10 months, what is known as “canonical babbling” first appears, marking the culmination of prelinguistic development. The child now has the ingredients for future structured language: well formed strings of consonant/vowel syllables, such as /bababa/, mamama/, /papapa/, /tabada/, and so on.

At age 6 to 8 months, babies also begin to acquire the elements of prosody (melody and rhythm) specific to the language they hear being spoken around them. The consonants and vowels of their canonical babbling then begin to reflect certain specific features of this language. It is at this age, for example, that Japanese babies stop being able to distinguish the sounds of “r ”and “l ”.

Between 7 and 12 months, babies begin to understand simple, familiar orders accompanied by gestures. It is also now that “mixed babbling” begins, as babies begin to pronounce actual words in the midst of their babbling.

At around 11 to 13 months, all of the sounds that children produce belong to their mother tongue.They make increasingly frequent use of gestures and changes in intonation to impart meaning to “proto-words”. Gradually, these gestures supporting proto-words give way to auditory labels that other people understand: that is, to actual words.

Just before the child says its first words, however, it must pass an important milestone: pointing with its finger.

Until the age of about 10 months, a baby who is stuck in its high chair and wants an object that it sees but cannot reach will express this desire by gesturing with its arm with the palm of its hand open downward, displaying great agitation, making intense vocalizations, and looking back and forth between the object and its mother.

But between 11 and 13 months, the baby changes its attitude radically as it manages to point with its index finger to identify the object of its desire. This simple gesture is immensely powerful, because it actually plants an idea in the other person’s mental world. In fact, when a baby starts pointing with its finger, this means that it has understood the principle of speech; all it has to do now is learn how to make certain “auditory gestures” with its mouth and tongue instead of pointing with its finger. Pointing with one’s index finger thus seems to be a mandatory step toward speaking one’s first word (even though not all children who learn to point necessarily go on to develop language).


Link : To Fight Stuttering, Doctors Look at the Brain
Original modules
Tool : Brain Imaging Brain Imaging

Children who have dysphasia generally show delays in the normal stages of language development fairly early on. For example, they may not talk at all for the first years of their lives, or may still not say any real words (mommy, daddy etc.) at the age of 18 months, or not speak any 2-to-3 words sentences at age 2, or not start asking questions with the word “why”at around age 3.

For a long time, the areas of the brain that are involved in language were referred to as its “speech centres”. But nowadays, they are regarded more as relays in a network. This model would also explain how people can sometimes recover a given language function even after the “centre” that supposedly controls it has been destroyed.

Four out of every five people with aphasia are male. The female brain thus seems to be organized for language in a way that makes it more resistant to the various forms of aphasia. Even when the brain damage involved is comparable, women generally end up with more limited language deficits than men.


It is convenient to divide language disorders into two categories: those that arise in the course of language development, known as dysphasia, and those that result from disease or injury, known as aphasia.

Dysphasia is an abnormality in language development associated with malfunctioning in the areas of the brain that process language. Dysphasic children hear properly but without understanding the meanings of words or sentences. And when they speak, they have a lot of trouble in making themselves understood.

This deficit is, however, limited to the area of language, and otherwise the children display entirely normal intelligence. Dysphasia does not involve relational disorders either, because, unlike autistic children, for example, dysphasic children try to communicate in every possible way.

In fact, the term “dysphasic” is applied to all children who cannot speak well for no apparent reason, and the speech therapists who treat them are fairly close to believing that every case of dysphasia is unique.

Indeed, the causes of dysphasia remain mysterious and involve many factors. They do seem to include a genetic component, since some forms of dysphasia run in families and boys are three times more likely to be dysphasic than girls. But interactions and exposure to language early in life may also play a role, which is why the various types of dysphasia are classified as neurodevelopmental disorders.

Dysphasia can present in various forms and with varying degrees of severity.

Link : Orthophonie Link : Qu'est ce que l'Orthophonie ? Link : L'orthophonie et les troubles orthophoniques aux USA Link : Le retard de langage
Link : La dysphasie sévère : ce "handicap" du langage Link : Les troubles du langage oral Link : Les troubles bénins du langage Link : PATHOLOGIES DU LANGAGE ORAL

Aphasia is a language disorder acquired as the result of damage to the language-dominant brain hemisphere at a specific time in the life of an individual who had already fully mastered language. People with aphasia usually do not have any impairment of their cognitive faculties or of their ability to move the muscles used in articulating words.

The types of illnesses and injuries that can cause aphasia include strokes, head injuries (as the result of motor vehicle collisions, falls, or other accidents), brain tumours, degenerative neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and infectious neurological diseases such as encephalitis.

To regard aphasia as merely a language disorder is far too simplistic. It is actually a communication disorder that considerably disrupts the sufferers’ personal, familial, and social relationships. Often, aphasia forces people to give up their jobs and their preferred leisure activities, thus increasing their social isolation. Depression is another regularly reported consequence of aphasia.

Though aphasia has been divided into two major categories and a classification of the various types of aphasia has been established, “pure” cases of any given type are very seldom observed. The reason is that the brain lesions that cause aphasias generally damage several different areas of the brain at once.

Link : What is a stroke? Link : Aphasia  


Stuttering is not really a language disorder in the strict sense. It is a disruption in the flow of speech in communication situations, and it affects four times more boys than girls. In some children who have inherited more fragile speech faculties, stuttering emerges between 2 and 5 years of age. Other children may suddenly begin stuttering as the result of a psychological shock, such as a death in the family. In general, stuttering mainly affects “hard”consonant sounds, such as “k”, “g ”, and “p ”. Stuttering is described as “clonic” when the repeated element is a syllable (“I want to bor-bor-bor-bor-borrow that”) and “tonic” when it is only the first phoneme of a word (“I want to b-b-b-b-borrow that”).

People who stutter stop doing so when they are singing, or reciting a memorized text, or reading out loud—in fact, whenever they are in a speaking situation that does not require them to communicate spontaneously and hence to adjust their breathing as they go along. Because stuttering is a problem that is intimately connected with the “mechanics of speech”, stutterers are sensitive to stress, fatigue, emotions, and excitement. One final point: as some experts put it, to emphasize that we still really understand very little about stuttering, “The only difference between a stutterer and a non-stutterer is that the stutterer stutters!”

Link : New Research into Stuttering Link : Le bégaiement Link : Stuttering

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