The language network(s): Beyond localisation?


The cognitive revolution of the 1950s reinvigorated the idea that the brain is the organ enabling the mind. Hence, the human ability to acquire and use language, a fundamentally mental property, must be considered and studied as a property of the brain as well. Nowadays, hardly anyone would doubt this exposition, and neuroscientists have successfully identified a variety of brain regions critically involved in language processing. Classical neurolinguistic models by and large expected language to be clearly localisable in the brain. However, the advent of neuroimaging has (again) shown this idea to be problematic, as is the case for all higher cognitive functions. For a more complete picture, neurolinguistics has moved beyond localisation, towards functional connectivity and network approaches, attempting to capture the dynamics of neural connectivity and activity patterns. From today’s perspective, language in the brain is best understood as a distributed dynamic network, not a single localisable function. Future focus will thus lie on refining knowledge about structure, connectivity, and functionality of network nodes, as well as determining the dynamic networks for specific linguistic functions (e.g., syntax, semantics, pragmatics). Ultimately, some general functional features of language, such as the merging of elements, might be fairly localisable, whereas the “whole” of language, owing to its complexity, remains widely distributed. The biggest remaining challenge then is to discern whether such a network analysis can actually aid attempts at forging links between linguistics and neuroscience.

Obergurgl, Austria