New Perspectives on Language

Where does our ability to communicate come from? How does language develop and how do we pass it on from generation to generation? The National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Evolving Language, established last year, breaks down barriers between humanities and natural science to find answers to these questions. ZNZ News talked with several of its members about the importance of such an approach and their individual goals for the project.

Thirty research groups from linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, medicine, genetics, computer science, geography and philosophy unite their minds and experience to research the evolution of language.
Richard Hahnloser from the Institute for Neuroinformatics sees a huge potential in this variety of expertise that comes with the collaboration of disciplines and research centers. “The NCCR allows our group to ask questions about the role of animal vocalizations more broadly, supported by more animal models and with a wider range of methods.” In this way, he expects to get closer to the question of what role all the calls and songs play and how interactions through animal vocalizations align with our human communication and what the final differences are that make them human.
The uniqueness and origin of the human language is also something that has always preoccupied Martin Meyer. “To know this origin is to understand who we humans are and to understand why we are the way we are.” As a specialist for neurocognition of speech and language he wants to know more about the role of prosody and rhythms in voice processing. The human spoken language is based on the auditory system, which is the only sense that does not follow an endogenous rhythmical pattern. “Rhythm, however, is an extremely important pacemaker for the brain and we want to learn how the brain imposes a rhythm on spoken languages to make them easier to process.”, says Martin Meyer. While he is fascinated by phylogenetic aspects of language evolution, Moritz Daum, professor for Developmental Psychology, focuses on the ontogenesis of the human language. “We look at how non-verbal and verbal forms of communication are interrelated and how development differs depending on whether children grow up with one or several languages.” Knowledge of how communication develops in childhood and how the neural bases of language acquisition change with age can contribute to the question how language may have evolved over the course of humanity.

With a focus on the written language, Silvia Brem, from the Developmental Neuroimaging Research Group at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, wants to advance the understanding of the biological substrates of language. “We ask questions such as how written language is learned and processed in the brain to better understand what may cause the severe problems in the considerable number of children with reading impairments.” She aims at improving app-based interventions for those children and at the same time also develop novel neuroscience-based interventions for children and adults with reading problems. The possibility to combine all these different perspectives on language evolution is what makes this NCCR unique. That is the view of all four members ZNZ News talked to. Silvia Brem concludes that this NCCR investigates language from so many different perspectives and disciplines and applies an immense variety of different methodological approaches, it will carry the language research far into the future.

Find out more about the NCCR Evolving Language.