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Photo of Helen Neville Old Brain/New Tricks

Neuroscientist Helen Neville researches language acquisition and its relationship to the developing brain. Is there a critical window of opportunity for children to learn language? What happens if the brain is not exposed to language at the appropriate time? To shed light on these questions, Helen answered viewers' questions as part of an Ask the Scientists panel following the premiere of the Scientific American Frontiers Special Pieces of Mind. Here are viewers' questions and her answers:

QI watched your program segment this evening and was fascinated. I've been interested in learning languages for 20+ years. Can you provide some information so that I can find journal articles covering some of the same material?

Please visit our Website. We have listed there recent publications from our lab that present information on these various issues. In our articles you will find references to research from other labs on these issues.

QI'm so glad Scientific American Frontiers reported your research. I have been struggling w/ English grammar for over ten years and has not been able to use it correctly. I came to US when I was 11 yrs old and had to learn English fast. Currently, I'm a graduate student in a doctoral program studying clinical psychology and still struggling w/ the English grammar, I can't edit my own paper. It was great to know that part of the Grammar development in the bran has a critical period. My question for you is that since this is a neurolinguistic developmental problem, as an ESL person what can I do? what are the resources out there besides practicing grammar work-books (I've done many grammar work-books and still can't edit my own work)? I hope my questions are clear.

We know that there are time windows when certain kinds of learning occur more easily but we know very little about the factors that determine or specify these time periods (critical periods). If we knew more perhaps we could change them or release their constraints and so improve learning in late learners, etc.

On the basis of my reading several large literatures pertinent to learning and neuroplasticity, my hunch is that pharmacological and physiological factors important will be more abundant with focused attention and motivated practice! So, while we can't explain exactly how or why it works - practice, practice, practice attentively!

QHow does dyslexia fit into your study of language patterns in the brain? After watching the program, I was curious that the location of simple words was different than other words. I have notice that simple words are harder for dyslexia children. As the locations become more centralized does this help a dyslexic adult?

We do a lot of research on language processing in normal adults and children to try and understand how the brain processes information of this type at different ages. Only when we have this type of baseline knowledge can we begin to understand how it goes awry in different situations such as dyslexia. We have studied a group of language impaired children, only half of whom were also dyslexic. We have observed a highly varied pattern of responsiveness that makes me think there can be several different reasons why someone might have a language or reading disability. For example, some people have trouble processing auditory information when it's presented at very high rates. Some have problems specifically with the grammar of language. Some have difficulty segmenting a word into its smallest parts. We don't yet know which aspects of brain organization reliably predict improved capability in a dyslexic adult but research like this is underway and there will be more information on this in the future. You may want to check out the web sites of Paula Tallal and Mike Merzenich who have thought a lot about the treatment of language impairment.

QSince there is great interest in "Natural Language Processing" with computers, how can we apply what is learned about humans? Most of what is being done today is very mechanistic, but it is my opinion that language cannot be processed that way and that it is essential that a computer first develop object, space, time, and causality concepts. My AI instructor, on the other hand, is confident that eventually a logic engine will be able to process language. A specific point of disagreement is this: I maintain that there is NO semantics in language, that it is simply symbols, whereas he believes that language does contain semantics. Can you provide any information or opinions which shed light on this point?

I don't know how you are using the term semantics. We refer to the process whereby a word stands for an object as referential or lexical semantics so of course I think there is semantics in language! It is an empirical question whether a logic engine can process language as we do. None do yet. A central question, however, for understanding the relevance of this type of approach is how the machine acquires its knowledge. One of the most impressive and un-computer-like aspects of language in humans is its rapid, progressive rule governed acquisition. As far as I know, the way humans and computers acquire knowledge is completely different.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.