Back in November I picked up this article in New Scientist : Mind-reading scan locates site of meaning in the brain and I never got round to blogging about it. Now it seems that this research has been expanded by another team, as there’s a new article out this week; Take a peek inside the brain’s filing cabinet.

In both sets of studies, neuroscientists have used fMRI scanning to look at which areas of the brain light up when the subject is shown images that they will associate with a given word. Both articles pick out animals to illustrate the examples; in November’s article it was a horse, and in this month’s a butterfly.

The findings are very interesting, and show that the same sets of neurons seem to activate for words in similar categories. New Scientist focuses on the potential of this for applications in mind-reading machines and in establishing contact with brain-damaged or locked-in patients, but one part of the November article in particular made me wonder if it doesn’t also have repercussions for language learning.

The system was still able to identify which animal had been named, despite being trained with patterns generated for English words. For example, the word “horse” and its Dutch equivalent “paard” gave rise to the same brain pattern, suggesting that the activity represented the word’s meaning – the concept of a horse.

The Dutch study used eight bilingual participants for the test, but the January article cites Jack Gallant’s work mapping the 1,705 most common nouns and verbs in English. The image below is a screenshot of the neural map he’s developed – if you click through it takes you to the interactive version, but be warned you probably need Chrome for this to work properly.

Neural word map

If these areas are the same across all people and all languages as the studies seem to have found, then surely the implication for language learning, more than ever, is that visually-based, ‘learn by association’ methods are going to produce the best results? Whether that’s being immersed in the native environment or learning through a programme like Rosetta, the emphasis is on looking at images and learning through association which words and parts of the sentence relate to which elements of the image and how.

I wonder how long it will be before the academic system finally listens to the wider evidence and moves away from the endless grammar lectures and learning by rote?

Neuroscience locates the site of word meanings
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