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The infrastructure of the language-ready brain


Hagoort,  Peter
Neurobiology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Radboud University Nijmegen;
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, External Organizations;

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Hagoort, P., & Poeppel, D. (2013). The infrastructure of the language-ready brain. In M. A. Arbib (Ed.), Language, music, and the brain: A mysterious relationship (pp. 233-255). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

This chapter sketches in very general terms the cognitive architecture of both language comprehension and production, as well as the neurobiological infrastructure that makes the human brain ready for language. Focus is on spoken language, since that compares most directly to processing music. It is worth bearing in mind that humans can also interface with language as a cognitive system using sign and text (visual) as well as Braille (tactile); that is to say, the system can connect with input/output processes in any sensory modality. Language processing consists of a complex and nested set of subroutines to get from sound to meaning (in comprehension) or meaning to sound (in production), with remarkable speed and accuracy. The fi rst section outlines a selection of the major constituent operations, from fractionating the input into manageable units to combining and unifying information in the construction of meaning. The next section addresses the neurobiological infrastructure hypothesized to form the basis for language processing. Principal insights are summarized by building on the notion of “brain networks” for speech–sound processing, syntactic processing, and the construction of meaning, bearing in mind that such a neat three-way subdivision overlooks important overlap and shared mechanisms in the neural architecture subserving language processing. Finally, in keeping with the spirit of the volume, some possible relations are highlighted between language and music that arise from the infrastructure developed here. Our characterization of language and its neurobiological foundations is necessarily selective and brief. Our aim is to identify for the reader critical questions that require an answer to have a plausible cognitive neuroscience of language processing.