American Sign Language has the helpful characteristic that subject-object relationships can be expressed in either of the two ways using word order or inflection. Either a signer can sign the word "Sally" followed by the words "greets" and "Bob" (a construction in which word order dictates meaning), or the signer can use physical inflections such as moving hands through space or signing on one side of the body to convey the relationship between elements. For the study, the team formed 24 sentences and expressed each of those sentences using both methods.
Videos of the sentences being signed were then played for the subjects of the experiment, native signers who were lying on their backs in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines with coils around their heads to monitor which areas of the brain were activated when processing the different types of sentences.
The study found that there are, in fact, distinct regions of the brain that are used to process the two types of sentences: those in which word order determined the relationships between the sentence elements, and those in which inflection was providing the information.
In fact, Newman said, in trying to understand different types of grammar, humans draw on regions of the brain that are designed to accomplish primitive tasks that relate to the type of sentence they are trying to interpret. For instance, a word order sentence draws on parts of the frontal cortex that give humans the ability to put information into sequences, while an inflectional sentence draws on parts of the temporal lobe that specialize in dividing information into its constituent parts, the study demonstrated.
"These results show that people really ought to think of language and the brain in a different way, in terms of how the brain capitalizes
|Contact: Alan Blank|
University of Rochester